We have about 2 1/2 days in Casablanca before the official start of the tour, and we want to make the most of it. So hop aboard; here we go!
Thursday, Dec 17, 2015
Yes...the country is called Maroc here. After a connection in Madrid, we are now in Casablanca, the largest city in the country. Its population is about 3.5M; about 12% of the country's total. Our first impression as we were driven from the airport is that it looks like many of the other large Mediterranean towns we have been in (though it is actually located on the Atlantic Ocean), with the requisite palm trees lining the boulevards. Crazy traffic, with pedestrians crossing anywhere and anytime, and even walking in the street, but few motorcycles (a la Bangkok), and very little honking (a la Delhi). All of the buildings are in one of a handful of colors ranging from white to tan, so there is a drab homogeneity about it.
We finally got settled in our hotel, the Hyatt Regency on the Place des Nations Unies, at about 1:30, and were starving (the dinner on the plane was OK, but we had both opted out of the pre-landing breakfast since it was midnight on our body clocks). Most of the good restaurants here are only open for dinner (which starts at 8 pm!), but the concierge recommended one, Cabestan, which was open for lunch (until 3) and that had an ocean view (our hotel is about 1 mile inland). To get there we had to take one of the ubiquitous "petit red" taxis. From what we saw and experienced, most of these cabs would fail any kind of mechanical inspection and certainly an emissions test.
The restaurant was just past the Grand Mosque of Hassan II (which we will see on the tour) and near to the Morocco Mall, which according to the concierge is the largest mall in northern Africa! We will definitely not be checking it out. The restaurant is also next to the Phare d'El Hank (literally Henry's Lighthouse), the tallest and westernmost lighthouse in the country.
This is not a tourist place, as evidenced by the menu which was entirely in French (with no English subtitles). Luckily, Wendy was able to brush off her knowledge of French without benefit of alcohol. She ordered the fillet de dourade grille (grilled dorado on shitakes, pine nuts and zucchini); Wayne had the Blanc de Saint Pierre grille (John Dory over a paella risotto). Fantastique!
Though there were a few international brand stores we recognized, it was mostly filled with small, local shops, and many vendors selling their wares on rugs right on the sidewalk. The sidewalk on each block is a covered portico, making it shadowy and cooler; probably a good idea in the heat of the summer.
We saw one shop where a man was making sfenj; traditional Moroccan doughnuts.....
which are made of deep fried unsweetened yeast. When one is ordered, the vendor deftly makes a slit in one side, then he quickly slathers what looks like caramel into it, then rolls the whole thing in sugar and slips it into a paper sleeve. This is all done in about 5 seconds. Sadly, we did not taste one...yet.
After a while we sat down outside at one of the many tea shops lining the Place....
...ordered cups of hot mint tea (the national beverage), and watched the throngs of people walking by. There were all kinds of clothing, from very casual Western, to some fancy African, and of course traditional Muslim including hijabs on the women (though by our unofficial survey hijabs were worn by 100% of the older women and 50% of the younger). We also observed that nearly all of the patrons of the café were men (as you can see above). Since this was at about 5pm we assumed that the women were home cooking dinner.
We had intended to stay up until 8 to try to get back on some semblance of a normal schedule, but by 6 we were dead on our feet and had to do a faceplant on the bed.
Friday, Dec 18, 2015
Because we arrived well in advance of the tour start, we had previously arranged for a morning tour of the city, especially focusing on the Jewish history. At the appointed time we went to the lobby to find our guide, only to discover that it was Hicham, who is the guide for the actual A&K tour!! So we really got a head start on the rest of the group. We started out and he explained that the Jews have been in Morocco since Roman times. And from that time they totally mixed with the Berber and Muslim inhabitants. Unlike in many other countries, they were not limited to certain professions, nor were they ever confined to a ghetto. Sadly, there were some periods over the last 1,000 years where the different groups did not always coexist peacefully, but those have been few in number. The bond was certainly strengthened when the Jews and Muslims worked together to oust the French from the country. More on that below. During WWII, Hitler asked the king to turn over the country's Jews; he replied "We have no Jews here, only Moroccans." After the war however, when Israel became a state, about 90% of the Moroccan Jews moved there.
Hicham and driver Sayed (who miraculously avoided hitting anyone or anything a number of times) drove us around the city. One area was the Anfa section. Anfa is the original Berber name for the city; this is now an upscale residential area and the location of many consulate buildings. But, in the traditional style, in front of almost all of these is an outer wall with a gate, so you can't actually see the houses.
Our first stop was the Moroccan Jewish Museum. It's a small museum that contains some artifacts (most from the 20th century) and lots of photos of restored synagogues from around the country.
Next we went to Temple Beth-El....
...currently the largest active congregation in Casablanca. You'll note the chandeliers, which pick up the French influence, and the Berber rug.
Then we drove to the ocean, and walked along the promenade. Hicham told us that many families from Rabat and Marrakech come here in the summer, since they are inland and the temperatures can reach 120!
Back in traffic again, we asked him why there was still such a strong French influence (most signs and printed material are in French and Arabic). He explained that, though they were only in the country for 40 years, and were viewed as occupiers, the language and many customs took hold and have not been rejected. Indeed, even today, French is a required language in school.
We then stopped at Mohammed V Square. It is surrounded by many government buildings, including the courthouse and the governor's office. But, it was full of trash and not very inviting. The highlight (if you can call it that) were the water carriers.
Hicham explained that in the old days, in the very dry parts of the country, these men would go through the neighborhoods and sell water to the people. Today, they are just there for the tourists, and are happy to pose for a small fee. And we're pretty sure we've seen them before on The Amazing Race!
That was the end of the tour, as Hicham and Sayed were going to a mosque to pray. You see, today is Friday, the Muslim Holy Day. Many businesses close mid-day (and re-open later), as it is customary to pray and then have a family meal of couscous. In some Muslim countries, stores are closed all day on Friday.
We walked down Boulevard Houphouet Boigny and had lunch at the Taverne du Dauphin (John Dory for Wendy, clams with brown rice for Wayne; delicious but not picture-worthy), then again walked around the streets near the hotel. We did not go into any souvenir shops as Hicham told us "...they only sell tchotchkes which are not even made in Morocco".
Then back to the room to rest up for dinner. But that and tomorrow's cooking class will be covered in the next post with the detail and photos our loyal readers have come to know and love.
Au revoir (and Shabbat Shalom) for now,