Wednesday, February 28, 2001

White City Old City Red City Cold City

The Mohammed V Aeroport, in Casablanca, looks like it is just another random mid-60s Florida landing strip as the jet taxis to a gate. Inside, however, one finds a lobby so dramatic in size and design that you instantly know you are no longer in Europe or the Americas.

Unfortunately, the meal on the flight was fish. NEVER eat the meal on a flight if it is fish. I have known this for decades. I think it was just one of those pieces of information that automatically appeared. No one I knew while growing up ever flew on planes. The economy was strong during the VietNam war, but not so strong that people in the projects had jobs that flew them anywhere. So, 'avoid the fish' was not a valuable lesson I learned in childhood. No, until the late seventies, I saw air-travel as a privilege of the privileged.

I remember one Summer in the late 1960s when my brother, John, spent some time with his Godmother, our Aunt Bette, in upstate New York. We had all piled into a van with the neighbors and driven (eleven of us) for days through Massachusetts and New York for a week-long visit in Rochester. At the end of the visit, it was announced that he would stay longer and fly home later. FLY HOME! I don't remember exactly how badly I responded, but I am certain there must have been a bit of whining on my part about why he got to stay, and I didn't. More than thirty years later, he has a nice life with a big family and a house and a simple lifestyle that I envy. In the seventies, I finally got my chance to fly in jets; and these thirty years after John's Rochester to Providence flight, I fly much more than I would like.

So, I do not know from where my aversion to fish on a jet originates, probably just that strangling aroma of fish being heated in the ovens that turned me off. On flight 6915 from Heathrow to Casablanca, I enjoyed the bread and crackers and dessert, but did not eat the fish. Anne did.

After passing through the dramatic and beautiful lobby of Mohammed V Aeroport, we got in the queue for passport control. It was no faster or slower than any other passport control . . . well, faster than US passport control, which I have found to be rather poorly run, in that charming re-engineered way. After getting our passports stamped, we made our way to the soldiers who would guide us through metal detectors, check our passports, and send us to the luggage carousels and uniformed porters. Anne, always a savvy traveler and wise enough at the end of this journey to nick the air-sickness bag from the seat back, dressed impeccably in high-style including a new purple suede Karen Millen coat, made her way to one of the large pillars and returned the fish to British Airways more discreetly than I have ever seen! A bit shaken, but no worse for the wear, she continued to the carousel while a young janitor, speaking French in a cross tone, directed to me to a trash can. He smiled broadly when he realized there would be no extra cleaning projects in the luggage area this evening. Hey, either you have style, or you do not: a girl with style never leaves a mess behind in a public place, no matter how bad the meal!

It has only been in 2001 that I have had the good fortune of arriving at an airport to find a man holding a sign that reads 'Mac' and I hope to have the experience more. Especially when arriving in a country where English is the 4th most common language. (I now know that I now know more French than I thought.) There he was: our driver. When we got into the car, I panicked a little as I thought to myself: oh, no, they drive on the wrong side! The long ride from the airport reminded me of journeys to the Miami Airport in the 1970s. Low flat terrain and low whitewashed buildings and palm trees. Five miles into our journey, I realized that the driver was on the correct (left) side, and I had gotten so used to London that I was confused!

I booked a suite at the Idou Anfa Hotel, on Boulevard d'Anfa. It is a Moroccan hotel primarily used for businessmen in town closing deals, or being screwed by the Algerians. I selected it because I did not want to spend my first holiday in Africa at a Sheraton, Marriott, or Meridien hotel where the room looks the same as a room in Des Moines. I was not seeking a tent or casbah, just something relatively un-American.

I was, and still am, a bit surprised at the welcome we received. The front-desk staff was a bit surly when I started speaking to them in English (my only language); but, when I said my name was Mac, two of them lit-up, smiled and in perfect English began this litany of greetings and questions about my trip. I have never had the mention of my name evoke such glee in total strangers, just ask my creditors!

I think it helps to have a wife that more-often-than-not looks like a Parisian designer or Hollywood icon or New York pop star. I don't care what I learn about my insides during my spiritual development, if you are well-dressed, people treat you well. Style over substance! American Sloth that has been passed off as casual attire is treated outside of the US with the disdain it deserves, and appearing in public dressed well, with a wife who looks like she just arrived from a fashion runway gets me all the right kind of attention from service providers.

We were brought to our suite by a uniformed bellhop and found fruit juice, bottled water, a fruit basket and a tray of pastries awaiting us. Wow! This has never happened before, even when I've paid $500 a night for a single room. The suite looks out over the whitewashed city to a panoramic view of the Hassan II Mosque and the Atlantic Ocean.

Ahhhhh, it is called Casablanca because all the casas are blanca. I get it!

Anne decided to make her way directly to bed. I decided to have dinner. I had missed the fish!

The hotel has three restaurants, two bars, and a night club. I select the dining room, because the older I get, the less patience I have with paper napkins. I was seated by the only female staff.

The dining room is a cross between 1980s New Jersey Mafia and 1950s Parisian strip-joint. The music is American Christmas Muzak. YES. It is now 'O Christmas Tree' which was preceded by a Liberace-esque 'Jingle Bells'. I am not making this up.

The room and service are French, but the spirit is Moroccan. There is a buzz that is different from French and American dining rooms: the art on the walls, the quality of service, the whole feel of the room. I recall William Burroughs novels I read in the seventies about extreme indulgences in drugs, mystery, and homoerotica in Morocco. But the whole scene is a bit absurd. Certainly the music doesn't lend any sanity to the scene of chaos that is being carried out like a ballet. Chaotic, but smooth and almost relaxing. The languages are French, Moroccan Arabic, and Spanish tonight.

I add my own twist to this scene of Burroughs meets Bunuel dining by reading an old New Yorker magazine 'Talk Of The Town' article about Matthew McConaughey arguing the merits of the American version of the TV show 'Temptation Island' with that show's 'heart throb' (?), Jim Sperber. Why am I reading this?

Is there a lonelier scene than the parties of one seated in a hotel dining room? The other parties of one are also non-Moroccan, seemingly French, definitely French-speaking. Me? I can say chateau-briand and then answer the obligatory question about my nationality being American or British by saying, in English, that I am an American living in London.

I order two courses and read more about Matthew McConaughey and Jim Sperber. Why am I reading this article? The prawns are amazing, and my inquisitor is pleased, and I realize there are no more parties of one, and I am the only piece of Euro-trash in the joint.

I now notice that none of the men will make eye-contact with me, and the maitre'd is instructing the woman in how to serve me. For some reason, though all the other tables are being serviced by the men and woman working as a team, I am only interacting with the woman. Her English is very good and the service is top-notch, so I have no complaints. My curiosity, though, is whether I am being served by the woman because the men will not serve an American (which would be odd, because Moroccan Arabs are not hostile to the West in the way as some other Arab cultures); or, do they think I prefer to be served by an attractive woman? I decide it is a question that would offend all of them if I asked, so I decide to forget about it.

My main course arrives and it is beautiful. I have no utensils. Do I dare use the Hollandaise? NO. The Christmas music ends and is replaced by a very loud recording of an Egyptian pop singer. Reminds me of August Darnell, not Om Kalsoum. Is this chateau-briand from a cow? I better not think about it.

Four large parties of Moroccan businessmen are now the only other diners. I am not moved by the disdain with which I am viewed by them, which is evidenced by their looks of contempt when our eyes meet. They eat French and drink American. I decide it's a good sign that these well-dressed men are also having chateau-briand, but I can't help but be dismayed by their selections of Coca-Cola or Budweiser as beverages. So, I get to look at them with contempt, too! The music is back to Muzak cum Liberace, and the selection is 'Killing Me Softly' followed by an un-name-able Neil Diamond-type song.

I make my way back to the room, and CNN and BBC keep me in English-language information.

Friday began with a continental breakfast in one of the hotel restaurants. I had forgotten about prune danish! Delicious. When was the last time you had a prune danish? Get one soon!

We were then met in the hotel lobby by Karima, manager of Paradise Bus. Karima provides guides and vehicles for Moroccan holiday travel. She had already provided our airport pick-up on THU evening, and she had a proposition.

Karima offered an English speaking driver to take us around Casablanca on FRI, this same driver to take us on the 3-hour drive to Marakech on SAT where we would meet an English speaking guide, then the same arrangement to Rabat on SUN, transfer to the airport on MON, along with the aforementioned THU airport transfer, for the tidy sum of five thousand dirham (less than $500). I hesitated at first and suggested 4000, but Karima was not budging and Anne thought it well-spent money. Sold.

Ali (of course his name is Ali) is our-man-in-Morocco. We even have his mobile number in case we need anything while he is at home. His English is superb and we can call him at any hour for anything.

The Hassan II Mosque is the predominant architecture of the skyline and the only mosque that allows non-Muslim visitors. It is also the largest mosque in the world. It's construction has been financed by a Saudi prince as a memorial to the previous king, Hassan II. Today being the holy day, we could not enter, but we were allowed to look inside. What an amazing sight. The tower, which I pessimistically envision as someday filled with soldiers of Allah guarding Morocco's Atlantic coast after the inevitable Jihad victory over the evils of America and Israel, stands 280 metres. The plaza spreads for acres and is dotted with fountains and populated by an equal number of European tourists, faithful Muslims arriving for prayer, handsome, fit young men studying under Imam at the adjacent medersa (Koran school) in preparation for a lifetime of service to Allah, and elegantly uniformed policemen in service to the King (Muhammad VI, son of Hassan II, son of Muhammad V) whose primary job seems to be blowing their whistles at tourists venturing too close to the seawall that surrounds three sides of the mosque.

Last month, we bought a couple of books about Morocco to learn a bit before arriving. We learned about taxis grande and petit (which is why we've dropped three hundred quid on a private guide), we read about tipping (fifteen percent in Euro-type restaurants, a few dirham in local cafes, a few dirham per bag to the porter, etc.), only accept items (especially food) with your right hand, homosexuality is illegal and gay men are imprisoned, shorts are never acceptable at any time of year for anyone, and women should avoid showing bare arms and legs. It is good to be prepared.

For your amusement, many tourists seem to have failed to read these small points and we were treated, at this mosque, to the display of two couples dressed in tacky (TACKY) summer wear, both women sleeveless and one man in capri pants! I am no fan of capri pants and on 50-year-old men they are ludicrous. This crew walked right out of an Appalachian Wal-Mart clothing department and found themselves transported to Morocco's holiest shrine. Amazing! I felt like a native.

We also read that Casa is a 'casual' city. I feared my current penchant for blazers may be a problem, but it is not so. A jacket is always acceptable. Anne, fashion-smart as always, wore a colorful full-length skirt, long-sleeved denim top and scarf.

We spent more time than I though we would, just wandering around the plaza, asking Ali questions about Moroccan politics, and feeling the cool Atlantic breeze. My hair is now so long that the breeze actually blows through it!

Next was a drive to La Corniche, the seaside resort that is half 1990s South Beach, half 1960s Revere Beach -- it is Casablanca's Riviera. You can see the glamour and the poverty without turning your head. A Saudi Prince has built a palace overlooking the beaches. There are magnificent villas. There is an amusement park and seaside hotels with waterslides and discoteques, restaurants and food kiosks. It is 70F, but this is cold in Morocco, and La Corniche is practically abandoned.

At the end of La Corniche, as the tourism ends and nature resumes, we approach a holy site where unwed women swim in the waters and pray to a holy woman (now deceased) for the promise of a husband. It looks like a miniature castle, but is a village on a tiny island that is accessible by foot during low tide. The holy woman died many years ago (50 from what I can determine) and the island is inhabited by her descendants who are very poor and suffer the reputation of being drunken louts bent on crime to subsidize their meagre existence. This situation has not diminished the holy woman's powers; but, women who visit the shrine are advised to arrive in the company of ALL her brothers. Ahhhh, holiness isn't what it once was.

Next was the park and a Spanish cathedral (long closed, but beautiful architecture), the Mohammed V Plaza (the Moroccan version of Trafalgar Square), and finally some shopping.

Ali wants to know why we are going to visit Rabat, but not Fes. Our reasons were not compelling, and plans were made to switch our Sunday plans to the site of the oldest university in the Western world.

We made it an early day. Anne took a nap, and I found the lobby bar. I was not in the bar fifteen minutes when I was invited to Miknas by a total stranger. I must relax my friendliness. How will I extricate myself from this? I have only come here for a Coke (which was served in a cold bottle), and now I must end this conversation, accept the invitation with the caveat that our trip to Fes may not allow for a visit in Miknas, without offending this seemingly kind gentleman.

After Anne's nap, I convinced her that we should visit the Old Medina, the original city which is the closest thing to what may be envisioned as Bogart's and Bergman's Casablanca. The Medina is very old and run-down, it is poverty-stricken and tense, and it is night. Anne is not enjoying it at all, and I understand. The buzz is clearly criminal, and there is nothing romantic about it. I could enjoy trekking further in; but, Anne's safety and comfort is more important than my curiosity.

We return to the hotel and have a delicious three-course meal in the dining room. With gratuity, we have just dropped all of $44.00! It's good to be an American!

Saturday was our trip to Marrakech. Everyone told us that we should stay in Marrakech, not Casablanca. But, Casablanca has been on my list since I was a teenager, and Marrakech was never on the list. The drive was uneventful. We saw farmland and industry and desert and hills. It is beautiful, because it is totally unlike anything I had seen in North America or Europe.

Moroccan cities are broken into at least two distinct sections: Medina (the old city built by the Arabs or Berbers) and the Ville Nouvelle (the new city built by the French during their enslavement of Morocco in the 20th century).

Marrakech is the red city, as it's buildings are made from red clay, not dissimilar from that found in the American Carolinas.

Rashid was our man in Marrakech. We met him in the Ville Nouvelle and started our adventure at Agdal Gardens, a reservoir and groves of olive, apricot and citrus trees created in the 12th century. Then to see the gates, walls, and plaza of the Royal Palace, which is closed to everyone but the King. The El Bahia Palace, however, is open to the public when the royal family is not present and is a beautiful place. The Ali-ben Youssef Medersa is a 14th Century Koranic school that is almost completely restored and is amazing to see. The ceramic tiles, the cedar wood cupolas, the architectural details are amazing. Rashid is very learned in the Koran and Koranic and Islamic history. He is a fount of information and we had a couple conversations contrasting medersas to seminaries. The Koutoubia Mosque's minaret is visible from most anywhere outside the souk, and at 230 feet, was the inspiration for the tower at Hassan II Mosque. The minaret is topped by three golden spheres (representing the most important tenets of Islam: Allah, prayer, Ramadan) that legend says were created from all the gold jewelry of the Mother of the sultan Ahmed el Mansour, which she offered as penance for missing fasting days during Ramadan.

What I am beginning to notice about Marrakech is that it is EXACTLY what is expected of Morocco. Everything seemed to be just like a Hollywood depiction of Arabian palaces and houses of worship and all the people seemed to be reading from a script and acting out a role from the imagination of the genies at DreamWorks.

The souk (marketplace) is a labyrinth of alleys, some open and airy, some closed and dark. I would never attempt getting through the souks, or the medina, in general, without a guide. The Marrakech souk also seemed very much like a movie set. Unreal in some way. We visited some shops, bought a rug and a Hand of Fatima, but, in retrospect, were not terribly excited or moved by our time there.

That evening, Anne played with baby cobras around her neck, and she sat on a small stool with a snake charmer who allowed me to take a picture. When she arose, the snake charmer, moved her stool and an adult cobra stood straight up and flared his neck. Scared the pants right off me!!!! Sorry, I don't like snakes, especially cobras!

An amusing sidebar: we visited a number of antique galleries. Upon entering one of them, the first photograph you see is of the proprietor with Lou Reed! A rather recent picture. Next photo is same proprietor with Brad Pitt! Amusing. Gallery was totally over-priced, like most everything in Marrakech.

Next day was Fes! My oh my! Our guide this day was Kahlid. He was young, bright, politically active, wholesome, religious, handsome, and spoke near-perfect English. He brought us first to the top of the hill at the South of Fes, where a battlement was constructed in the 14th century. From this high vantage point, we could see all of Fes spread out before us. Remarkable. Next, to the ceramic cooperative to learn how they make all that beautiful blue ceramic. Anne, of course, wanted brown and green! Why buy blue, just because that's what the city is known for! Then to the oldest university in the Western world. Kairaouine University was established in 857, and predates Bolgna and Oxford. The original building still stands within the ancient medina, Fes el Bali, and is now a mosque. The Zaouia (Tomb) of Moulay Idriss II closed to non-Muslims, but can be viewed through the arched doorway. The tomb is the site of pilgrimages for women seeking fertility and those wishing for a turn in their luck; it is also a site for official sanctuary and those inside cannot be arrested. The Fondouk Tsetouanien has been completely restored to its original beauty and was a center of commerce for caravans. The ground floor was used as a sort of bazaar and the upper, balconied floors for sleeping quarters. The view from the roof of the fondouk was absolutely incredible, as it is in the center of the ancient medina and is the second highest non-religious point. The Leather Tanners inhabit a quarter which is dominated by huge vats used for the curing and dying of leather. We got a couple of nice bags here, and you don't even want to know how inexpensive they were!

The souk (market) in Fes el Bali is everything the souk in Marrakech is not. You would never mistake these souks for a Hollywood set. Since most of the souk were built in the 9th and 10th centuries, the alleys are very narrow. Miles and miles of twisting, turning, light and dark, alleyways that you should not consider navigating without a reputable guide. There is no room for any kind of vehicular traffic, so everything is moved around by donkey and hand-cart. At one point we were in a 'square' about 6' x 6' surrounded by butcher shops displaying sides of meat, cured meats, freshly severed sheep heads, clucking roosters with their feet bound, about 35 adults trying to move through and a donkey trying to maneuver! This is not a Hollywood set!!!

There was soooo much more in Fes. You MUST see it. Fes is everything Marrakech is not.

Unfortunately, we had to return to London on Monday. It is cold in London. We returned refreshed.

Tonight, though, I will go to the Borderline to see my cousin Andrea's band Red Chord. When they return to the States after the rest of their UK/Ireland tour, they will pick-up their residency at the Abbey Lounge, in Somerville, MA. I suggest you check them out -- they are great.

Enough! It's time to sign-off.

Dick Mac (alive!)
The Only Survivor Of The National Peoples Gang


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