Monday, 9 January 2012

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech

world-map marrakech


And welcome to the final post of my 2007 travels in which I follow in the footsteps of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and take the Marrakech Express thus confirming my status as a hippy wannabee.

As with the others, there are sketches by Rob and a few silly photos by me. Enjoy it for next week there'll be something new. I haven't decided what exactly but since I've been beavering away at my latest work on the Balkans and a lot of you commented on how much you liked that last time I put up an extract, it'll probably be from that.

Also I've booked my flights for this year's expedition - from Kiev to Romania with (hopefully) a little sojurn into Moldova. Can't wait since the last time I went to the Ukraine I ended up locked up in a police cell. I'll post all about it on here one day, promise.

All the best and keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to all the parts of this travelogue:

Travels in 2007: Part 1: Berlin

Travels in 2007: Part 2: Andalucia

Travels in 2007: Part 3: Tangiers and Fez

Travels in 2007: Part 4: Merzouga and Demnate

Travels in 2007: Part 5: Casablanca and Marrakech

The Hotel Touloussain where we stayed in Marrakech’s Ville Nouvelle was the best hotel that we lodged in all holiday. It had high, spacious rooms centred around a courtyard where breakfast was served every morning. All in all, it exuded a welcome atmosphere of colonial elegance, all the more welcome after several nights in the squalor of Demnate’s Hotel d’Ouzoud.

That evening we walked from our hotel, through the Ville Nouvelle to the medina and the Djemaa el-Fna; the vast square in its heart that is Marrakech’s main tourist attraction. Marrakech’s Ville Nouvelle looked noticeably smarter and more affluent than any of the others that we’d visited and what’s more surprising – considering the geographical location of the city, far in the south and away from European influence – the most Westernised place that we came across in the country. Girls strolled around in figure-hugging jeans, heads bare, arms around their boyfriends who chatted into mobile phones and sported designer sunglasses. It was a world away from Rissani and Demnate, or even Fez and Tangiers.

We got lost initially in Marrakech’s medina, which was tattier and less atmospheric than that of Fez. The Demas el-Fna however, was fantastic; a brightly-lit cacophony of sounds, smells and sights. Tourists mixed with locals watching dancers, acrobats and storytellers or stopping at one of the hundreds of stalls selling kebabs, freshly-squeezed orange juice, henna tattoos or herbs. The Sibling and I also stopped at one of these establishments and ordered a veritable feast of shashlik, aubergine and bread. All was good until the bill came, a whopping Dh270 for a meal that would have cost less than Dh100 elsewhere. Stupidly, we had forgotten that one should always ask the price first in a tourist hotspot. Upon our questioning, the smiling proprietor immediately turned the ‘7’ to a ‘4’ but then the going got harder. It was only when the Sibling walked off to the cash machine to take out some extra money that the restaurateur realised that the ‘2’ should in fact have been a ‘1’ and we got off with paying only double what we would have paid elsewhere in Morocco. Still, unlike in Tangiers, at least in Marrakech they ripped you off with a smile.

We woke early the following morning and walked through the Ville Nouvelle to the railway station. Having passed through Ouarzazate quickly we now had some spare time on our hands which I decided to use up on a side-trip to Morocco’s biggest city, the legendary Casablanca.

I wanted to visit Casablanca and I wanted to travel to her by train. I wanted to visit Casablanca because it has a certain romantic appeal of colonial decadence epitomised by the 1942 film named after it. So what if that film was shot entirely in the US by people who had most likely never even been to Morocco? Romance is romance and it need not be reality. Besides, there was another reason to visit Casa (as the locals call it). There is only one mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed to visit and that mosque – the King Hassan II Mosque, completed in 1993 and the third-largest in all Islam – was something that I wanted to see. And I wanted to travel to Casablanca by train because it is best to visit anywhere by train, but more specifically, because if one travels to Casablanca by train, then one should travel back in the same manner and if one travelled back to Marrakech by train then one would “take the train from Casablanca going south” and as Crosby, Stills and Nash once sang, one would be “riding on the Marrakesh Express, they're taking me to Marrakesh. All aboard the train.”[1]

And can anyone think of a better reason to go to Casablanca than that?

Marrakech’s railway station was an elegant 1920s colonial edifice that fitted with the atmosphere I wanted our day to have, although the days of that station are numbered as a new, much larger terminal with a shopping centre included was being built alongside. Once again, it was nice to see the Moroccans investing in their railways and the designs on the billboards looked impressive.

The journey to Casablanca was uneventful through bland countryside and towns. We had a compartment all to ourselves and the Sibling sketched away whilst I wrote my second short story of the trip; a sympathetic reworking of the life of Jezebel, one of the Bible’s most infamous women. I had just finished it when the train pulled into Casa Gares Routieres station – timed to perfection!

We had to take a taxi into the centre of the city as the railway station is some distance away and after much haggling and walking away, we landed on the wrong driver who tried to overcharge us and then dropped us off in the wrong place deliberately, informing us that the Place de la Victoire was in fact the Place des Nations Unies that we had asked for.

That curse however, turned out, in a fashion, to be a blessing, for walking towards the Place des Nations Unies, we passed through an area of markets and cheap shops and in one of them I found an item that I had long been searching for.

Two years previously, whilst en route from Vietnam to Britain, we stopped off for three days in Dubai. Whilst wandering around the souqs, we came across a stall selling a variety of Islamic alarm clocks. There on the counter was a plastic Qur’an which, when opened, revealed a clock face and recording of the Call to Prayer. There were mosques too, in fetching lime green and gold, that sang out the Call when you pressed the dome. Within moments I had snapped up a mosque and to this day I am woken every weekday morning to the cry of “Allaaaaaah, akhbar!” or to be more exact, “Al-“ before the golden dome is thwacked by a semi-slumbering me.

Needless to say, the mosque alarm clock soon gained some fame amongst my friends and family and before long requests for similar items were being lodged. Being an accommodating guy, (and sensing a potential profit), I agreed to buy some, but that was the easy part. Alas, nowhere in Britain, (including the great Bombay Stores in Bradford), seemed to stock them and so it was that I approached Morocco with the intention of hoping to find some in that far more Islamic of kingdoms. Search as I might though, through the bazaars of Tangiers, Fez, Demnate and Marrakech, not one singing mosque could be found and I was about them give up when I spied one at the back of a hardware shop in this down-at-heel district of Casablanca.

“How much for the clock?” I asked the bearded proprietor.

“It depends on how many you want to buy,” replied he.

“How many do you have?”

“About seven.”

“And if I take them all…?”





And thus it was mission accomplished and for those who are interested, I sold the lot within the month for five quid apiece save for one which now sits on my desk at work and another which I gave to a friend as a Christmas present. Lucky him.

We continued to walk towards the Place des Nations Unies and stopped at a kebab place on Avenue Houmane el-Fetouaki for lunch. There we realised that time was running short as visitors are only admitted into the King Hassan II Mosque on guided tours, the last one being at two o’clock and it then being half past one, so we hailed a taxi to whisk us over to one of the greatest structures in all Islam.

One glance told us both that our side-trip to Casablanca had been worth the effort, for the King Hassan II Mosque truly is a sight to behold. Smaller only than the mosques at Mecca and Medina, it rises up by the roadside, the surging Atlantic Ocean acting as a restless background. The mosque itself is built half over the land and half over the sea in honour of the verse in the Qur’an that states, “His throne was upon the water.”[2] Its minaret – at 210 metres high, the highest in the world – dominates the skyline. And at a cost of $½ billion and built using over six thousand Moroccan artisans, the place truly is a testament to the autocratic King Hassan II, whom our guide proudly informed us, is a descendent of the Prophet himself.

Casablanca: just like a prayer 

Both inside and out the mosque is equally fantastic. Ornately carved wood, millions of colourful tiles, doors of titanium, a glass floor, a retractable roof and its own sumptuous hammam, not to mention space for twenty-five thousand worshippers inside and eighty thousand out, the mosque truly is a feast for the senses. Like Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it was refreshing to see money and time being invested in the construction of a religious building of quality in these modern times generally dictated by economic factors. Gazing at palaces of faith such as those, one has a glimpse at the awe that the mediaeval serf must have felt when he entered one of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals.

It was however, not the Sagrada Familia that the King Hassan II Mosque most reminded me of, but instead another great megalomaniac building project of the late twentieth century: Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Palace of the People in Romania. Like that edifice, this was huge and like that edifice, it had an element of the unfinished and pointless. True, the mosque itself was complete, pristine and perfect, but the grand plaza adjacent to it was surrounded by empty, purposeless looking arcades. “That will be a museum and this one a library,” our guide announced, yet the whole project had supposedly been completed in 1993 and these buildings were now looking aged and a little worse for wear. Likewise, the grand hammam under the mosque had not yet seen a single bather. Behind the grand exterior, to me it seemed that things weren’t quite right. The walls, tiled and immaculate, were beautiful, but aerial photos showed the roof to be made of corrugated metal, more suited to a stadium than a mosque of the Prophet and the shape and layout of it all more reminded me of a European cathedral than an Oriental mosque. But when one learnt that the architect was a Frenchman – and a Christian – then it became understandable. Like the Palace of the People, this was more an egotistical tribute to an earthly ruler than a monument of faith to a heavenly king. And like Nicolae Ceauşescu’s magnum opus, this too was built on shaky moral foundations: taxpayers’ money in which they had no say about it and the land once a slum whose residents have received no compensation for their bulldozed homes.

Feel the Power of the Lord! (2)

But then again many of the world’s great buildings are monuments to the ego of either man, nation or company, (the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, Versailles, etc), but that doesn’t make them any less spectacular, and despite its shortcomings, I for one was glad that Hassan had built his mosque for it stands as a lasting reminder of the twentieth century chapter in Morocco’s history and of the great resurgence of Islam following the collapse of the colonial system. Glad too was I too have seen it, but now that was done, it was time to move on so we walked back towards the centre of Casablanca, taking in the city’s medina en route.

Casablanca’s medina was, in comparison to the others that we’d visited, unspectacular. It is not large because before the French came along, Casablanca was not. More than any other city in the country – if not the whole of North Africa – Casablanca is a product of colonialism and unlike both Fez and Marrakech, people do not come to it for its Oriental attributes.

Which is perhaps a little surprising for some since the most famous product associated with the city is the 1947 film that shares its name and that positively reeks of Orientalism. But then again, that is perhaps understandable when one learns that it was shot across the Atlantic in America, peopled by a cast who had never even been to Morocco. Shot in Hollywood it might have been, but Casablanca still cashes in on its silver screen namesake and by the medina is a piano bar that claims to be an authentic reconstruction of the film set, albeit one built in 2004. We sought it out, (with some difficulty for it was nowhere near to its marked location on the map), but when we got there it was closed. We minded not since it would probably have been expensive anyhow and besides, we got what we came for; the obligatory photo in front of the sign saying ‘Rick’s Café Américain’. Now to go home, get out the DVD and play it again.[3]

The centre of Casablanca, where we walked out of the medina and were confronted by a gigantic road junction, is the Place des Nations Unies where the taxi should have dropped us off originally. It’s a grand square with elegant art deco buildings alongside mediaeval medina walls, a 19th century clock tower, the rectangular concrete block that is the Hyatt Hotel and  a weird modern sculpture of a globe made out of criss-crossed strips of steel. We caught a taxi there and a local tried to pickpocket the Sibling by tripping him over and then putting his hand in his pocket, (there was only tissue in there – ha!), so we were not really sorry to be on our way back to the railway station in order to catch the Marrakesh Express.

As you already know, I had looked forward to this particular rail journey because Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young had told me to do so. However, even that did not prepare me for what was to be the best ride of the holiday. Soon after settling ourselves into an empty compartment we were joined by a middle-aged gentleman clad in a suit and scarf – the standard uniform of the Moroccan businessman. Then, soon after he entered, two teenage girls came along. More than any businessman they grabbed our attention, (well, mine, the Sibling had already got out his sketchbook and was oblivious to the world), as they were, to be frank, two of the most beautiful females that I had ever seen, particularly the younger of the pair. Raven-haired, olive-skinned and with eyes like coal, she was the very perfection of Arab beauty, worthy of a place in the Rubaiyat or 1001 Nights Entertainments.

Rob realised that he'd chosen the wrong seat in the compartment…

Interested in them I may have been, but as with most gorgeous young girls when confronted with sweaty fat guys who don’t speak their language, the feeling was not reciprocated and instead of asking about my interest in comparative religions they merely spoke quietly to each other or looked out of the window at the passing suburbs. I resigned myself to my book and the odd stolen glance at heaven but then I had reckoned without the compartment’s wildcard: the businessman.

“Parlez vous Francais?”

A brief and apologetic reply informed him that we didn’t parlez a grand deal but to our surprise and delight, it mattered not for his English was almost as good as his French. And as he spoke, the girls pricked up their ears.

“Yes, my name is Abdel Hamid Knime.  I am a businessman in Marrakech. Where are you from? And excuse me but what are you drawing there?”

The Sibling showed him his sketches and Abdel was suitably impressed. He then showed them to the girls and started engaging them in Arabic conversation before then returning to us. “These girls are Fatima and Mouna, they’re sisters from Casablanca and they go to visit their aunt and uncle in Marrakech you see, and they like the pictures but are a bit shy in asking because their English is not good, but do not worry, I can translate!”

Here I sensed an opportunity. “Why don’t you draw everybody here?” I suggested to the Sibling. He liked the idea a lot now that he’d lifted his head from the sketchpad and realised that he was sat opposite a real-life embodiment of Princess Jasmine and her even hotter sister[4], and so did Abdel and thus the deal was done. As for Fatima and Mouna, they simply sat in straight and smiled.

And so it was that as the Sibling sketched, on our final journey of note in Morocco, we chatted with Abdel, Fatima and Mouna and finally made real human contact with the people of the land that we were visited; contact uninhibited by thoughts of any financial considerations whatsoever. In the warmth of that railway carriage compartment, we learnt of each others lives and were once again reminded of why train travel is the most civilised of all. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were right you see,

Looking at the world
Through the sunset in your eyes
Trying to make the train
Through clear Moroccan skies

Oh yes, and we had a great ogle as well.

Our last full day in Morocco turned out to be a Sunday and one on which the Sibling was suffering with acute food poisoning. Oh well, that was him, but for me it was bright and cheerful as Sundays should be and so I decided to start it off in the best possible fashion, namely a nice dose of religion. Our guidebook told us that there was a church in the Ville Nouvelle not far from our hotel so I set off for that whilst the Sibling dragged himself unwillingly out of bed and headed for the Jardin Majorelle, an art deco villa and gardens that was once owned by the French painter Jacque Majorelle and is now a museum of Islamic Art.

Marrakech’s Catholic Church is a simple, Italianate structure which a few pleasant Arabian twists. It was slightly sad to see armed police at the door, but inside it was a haven of peace and serenity as sunlight filtered in on the worshippers through a myriad of tiny skylights. The congregation was roughly divided into two halves – White Europeans and Black Africans and indeed, nowhere had I been in Morocco reminded me so strongly just how close we now were to Sub-Saharan Africa. Then it started, a sublime choir singing traditional Catholic hymns accompanied by African rhythms played on traditional wooden drums. The sound and setting were so beautiful that tears flooded down my face – rarely have I felt the presence of God so near at hand. Despite the magnificence of the Berlin Dom or Malaga’s majestic cathedral, none came close to this. The Lord truly was in that place. The Mass itself was in French and I understood very little, but it mattered not for the whole experience was so overwhelmingly beautiful that I needed no sermon. From the Coptic crucifix above the nave to the serene statue of Mary that looked just as Mary should, (no sanctimonious, insipid young white woman but instead an innocent and somewhat frightened fifteen year-old girl), it was all just perfect. I left that sanctuary feeling reborn.

We spent that day exploring Marrakech, wandering through the medina, (huge but bitty, not a patch on Fez), and taking in some of the major attractions in between bouts of getting totally lost. I particularly liked the Saadian Tombs, a peaceful cemetery of exquisite tombs reserved for descendents of the Prophet, and what’s more, in a street nearby I managed to purchase a fez – something that had eluded me even in the city after which that comical little cap was probably named.

More disappointing was the Palais el-Badi which, when completed in 1602, was reputed to be one of the largest and most beautiful palaces in the world and was known as the ‘Incomparable’. Well, in those days perhaps, but in 2007 it is a sad ruin and although its scale can still be appreciated, little else can. Indeed, its beauty has now disappeared to such an extent that whilst we were visiting a film company was using its central courtyard as a set for a military detention facility. Incomparable, well not really.[5]

Later on, after a footsore day of largely getting lost in the medina, the Sibling expressed a desire to return to the Jardin Majorelle and as he seemed so impressed with the place, I decided to come along too so in a taxi we hopped and away we went back to the Ville Nouvelle. I must say that the tropical gardens were delightful in all respects save for the sheer number of visitors

which prevented them from being peaceful as gardens should be and the fact that all the walls and buildings were painted a ridiculous shade of bright blue that was more suited to a nursery or aquarium than a garden.[6] Nonetheless, I enjoyed walking around, both in amongst the tall shady trees and in the museum itself which had not only some fine Islamic art but also pieces done by Majorelle himself, (he was the artist behind many of the colourful 1920s travel posters of the region). What made it all the more enjoyable was that I didn’t pay, simply reused the Sibling’s ticket from the morning, although to be fair to the curator, he didn’t buy my story at first and actually followed me around for a while.

But after the Jardin Majorelle, we were both shattered so it was back to the hotel to recover before finally hitting the town for one last time. And for that Moroccan send-off there was of course, only one place to go and indeed, only one guy to spend it with. We headed back down to the cacophony of the Djemaa el-Fna, (which despite the high prices, was intoxicating), and met up with Abdel Hamid Knime – the man who had made our trip on the Marrakesh Express so memorable – for a delicious, (and considerably cheaper than before), meal of kebabs and a glass of mint tea. To him we were both grateful for providing us with a genuine, money-issues-removed contact with the Moroccan people and thus we enjoyed a most pleasant end to what had been a remarkable trip.

The next day we were up early for the short trip out to the airport. Whilst the Sibling still suffered from bad health, I gazed out of the window at the snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the south that looked magical in the sunlight and thought about our trip. It had been less than three weeks before that we had taken off from East Midlands

airport and yet it seemed like an age, so much had we managed to fit into the time. And over that time our feelings had changed considerably as well. Our love affair with Morocco had not come immediately or even quickly. As John Higgins had promised, Tangiers had been a veritable hell-hole and although Fez had been beautiful, we had not found the nature of her people to be so and indeed, the most positive thing that we could say of the Moroccans up to that point is that we’d found one who looked exactly like a minor character in a 1970s war film. In all honesty, Morocco had only really come alive for us when we had finally managed to relax in the confines of the Nasser Palace, looking out over the golden dunes of the Sahara. But from there on, it had been a different story, magical almost – the silent trek across the dunes, the night in a Bedouin tent, the friendly hotel in Ouarzazate, the incredible bus journey over the High Atlas, the glorious tagine in the mountain village, the provincial loveliness of Demnate, the grandeur of the King Hassan II Mosque, riding the Marrakesh Express with Abdel, Fatima and Mouna and the heavenly church service in Marrakech – all are experiences that will long in my mind and doubtless that of the Sibling also. All in all, travelling to Morocco had been well worth the effort for we’d discovered a beautiful country, neither rich nor poverty-stricken, Islamic yet also European, with stunning deserts, mountains and ancient buildings. What the future will hold for her, I know not, for she is at the crossroads between Europe and Africa, between modernisation and traditionalism, between Islamic fundamentalism and modern free-thought. As we waited in the departure lounge I looked for clues to her fate and my eyes rested on two fully-veiled women sat by a pillar playing on their mobile phones. Was that the future that God has allotted to the Maghreb? I moved nearer to find out more and to my surprise, their conversation revealed them both to be speaking in broad, Birmingham accents. But then travel is like that you see, it never ceases to amaze…

[1] Taken from Wikipedia: "Marrakesh Express" is a popular song by Crosby, Stills, and Nash, released on their 1969 self-titled debut album. It was written by Graham Nash. Nash had originally intended to record the song with his group The Hollies, but that group refused to record the song.
The Marrakesh Express was a popular route for traveling hippies during the mid-to-late 1960s who sought out this Moroccan city for its mythical Arabic appearance, and maybe for its renowned hashish.
[2] Surah 11, verse 7
[3] Would you believe that this pathetic reference to the film was the best that I could manage after an age of trying to fit it ‘this is the start of a beautiful friendship’, ‘here’s looking at you’ and ‘as time goes by’?! Tragic.
[4] It should be noted here that my brother’s ultimate cartoon fantasy girl is Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. As for me, I prefer Belle from Beauty and the Beast. We both like Daphne out of Scooby Doo.
[5] The film incidentally, was ‘Rendition’ and it starred Reese Witherspoon. Haven’t managed to see it yet.
[6] The Sibling naturally disagreed since an artist had decreed it; he described it as an ‘exciting use of colour’. No wonder his parents named him something that rhymes with ‘knob’

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