Wednesday, 18 December 2013

8th November, 2013. Casablanca's Unseen

Before coming to Casablanca I heard warnings from Moroccans. "Don't go to Casablanca." "It's the most dangerous city in Morocco." "There is not much to see there." I must have not been listening because that day I wandered off the beaten toursity roads completely on my own for hours. While the path might not have been the most graceful I gained a lot of priceless, undiscovered insights into the patchworked city of Casablanca. And I came out completely in one piece!

I stayed at Ayoub and Alae's comfortable duplex on the outskirts of Casablanca. They are two chummy Tangerines who work in Casablanca. Speaking perfect Spanish, English and French, they enthusiastically told me how they watched spanish TV channels during their childhood. Alae even taught me the arabic roots of some spanish words and his stories were captivating.

Both of them had to work on this day so after sharing a breakfast and Ayoub teaching me the secret hand language to grab a taxi, I was ready to take on my independence. I got a taxi and managed to stop at the entrance door to the medina, Bab Marrakech. On one side of the wall was the metropolitan Casablanca with its concrete high-rises and palm-lined boulevards. On the other side, the old Casablanca with its tiny store-lined streets smelling of leather and wood.

Wandering through the medina, I passed old men in cafes and tourists with large SLR's. A few minutes in I was already lost but that was ok. I got a glimpse into a mosque where some men were washing their hands and feet in the inner courtyard, others sitting in the shade of the pillars, chatting comfortably. One of them caught me stopping and peeking. I instantly felt like I was being rude but he smiled. I smiled back and walked on. Eventually, I sighted the Hassan II mosque in the distance. "Perfect!" I thought. "Now all I have to do is walk in a straight line towards it."

Outside of the medina walls I could blend right in into the traffic of modern day commuters but as I ventured deeper into the narrowing streets, I started to stick out. There were no tourists here, most locals wore djellabas and women kept their hair up in spectacularly colourful hijabs. I kept walking until the road beneath me turned to dirt and mud. Boys were playing football in the passageways wearing sandals. They didn't seem to mind me as long as I didn't step into their game. The adults would stop to stare from behind their cages of chickens and rows of vegetables. Some of them would call out "Mademoiselle?" in confused tones.

The alleys spat me out in an empty boulevard lined with marine bases and sailors standing guard. They would straighten up and fix their hats as I walked by. Eventually I got to the Hassan II mosque and the sea. A lot of men were fishing. I took my shoes and socks off and joined them in the low tide of the Atlantic.

The mosque it was filled with tourists and locals. I sat outside and stared at the magnificent geometry and detail, wishing I had brought my book to read by the columnade, then everything would be perfect.

At one point I decided to follow some tourists only to realise that they all stayed within the bubble of Hassan II. Attached to the balloon, right at the roundabout where tourists grabbed their buses to go to another hotspot, was a vigorous trail of local families munching popcorn from vendors and gazing up at the mosque.

I met up with Abdo at the twin center, a large mall in the middle of metropolitan Casablanca. Here people would talk to me in Arab, there were as many veiled women as there were women in shorts, and I considered letting my hair loose for the first time in three days. Abdo is a nature lover who adores Casablanca. When I told him this area of the city felt like Madrid, he mentioned a couchsurfer from the US had compared Casa to New York. Together we bought some meat at street grill and some beers at a liquor store with a tiny entrance and the biggest interior I have ever seen. The walls were lined top to bottom with bottles and the walls curved and swayed to multiply their area so more bottles could be stuffed in. Two men worked the counter like a pharmacy while others contemplated liquors from a distance.

Sadly, I didn't get to spend much time with Abdo and his flatmates though his living-room and company was snugly chilled. No smile faded at his place as we talked about music, Morocco, Spain, anime, videogames. I even got the honor to meet the second best guitar player in the world, according to Abdo. Next time I promise we will duet.

Back at Ayoub and Alae's, there were two new faces waiting for me. One was Reed, a couchsurfer from the US, on his way to teach english in Tunisia and a good friend of Ayoub's from Rabat. As he told us about all the languages of Morocco (TV in classical arabic, talk in low arabic, Berber at home, french and english in university), Reed sat amazed. "Here I am struggling with french and spanish while you essentially grew up with five languages!" We all ate pizzas together over spanish TV before each of us guests took a spot on the couch or mattress.

Casablanca is a very different city from Michael Curtiz's spectacle. The stands are now office buildings and the cacophony of haggling is now the drone of city traffic. But a few corners remain where all that is heard is children playing and chicken cooing, fishermen murmuring and the sea bathing. It is an urban sprawl of contrasts, bound to suprise only those travellers creative enough to venture off its beaten path.

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