Curious about Casablanca
Today we caught a taxi from the outer industrial town of Berrechid, where we are staying at the British Language Academy with a tribe of other English and French speaking volunteers, to the bustling economic and business centre of Casablanca located in western Morocco. True, it’s a city made most famous by the 1942 American drama-romance film Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.
Some of my readers have asked me, “Is Rick’s café still somewhere in Casablanca?” And unfortunately, I hate to ruin the fantasy of the grand piano and roulette table and a rack of booze, but just like in the movies it’s all made up – the storyline, characters and the actual setting of the café. The entire film was shot in the Warner Bros studio in California – all but one airport scene which was filmed in Van Nuys airport LA. Sorry people.
But we’re not here in search of a Hollywood café, but to experience the real bustling city life of Casablanca this afternoon. We start with rough negotiations with a taxi driver over Dirham, explore the mosque that sits on the very edge of the Atlantic Ocean and get lost in Casablanca’s Old Medina area and finish with a train ride back to the working district of Berrechid.
So here’s Casablana at a Glance
- Locals: call it Casa for short
- Population: 5 million (2016)
- Languages: Arabic and French
- Strength: main industrial, economic and business zone of Morocco
- Legacy: French colonial with Mauresque architecture – a blend of Moorish style and European art deco
- History: Settled by the Berbers (indigenous people) in 10th Century
- Ethnicity: Arab-Berber or Arab-Berber-Andalusian
- Exports: One of the most important Casablancan exports is phosphate. Other industries include fishing, fish canning, saw milling, furniture making, building materials, glass, textiles, electronics, leather work, processed food, beer, spirits, soft drinks, and cigarettes
- Special: it is one of three countries (others being Spain and France) to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines.
Hussan II Mosque
So we finally work out the charge for the taxi driver and leave him at the roundabout and walk up towards the mosque with its towering minaret 201m high into the blue sky. At night two laser beams light up the path towards Mecca from this minaret. As we get closer to the mosque we can immediately sense its greatness – built large and strong on the very edge of the vast Atlantic Ocean. According to a verse in the Qu’ran which mentions God’s throne be built upon the water. And so it has been built here in Casablanca.
The Mosque took six years to build commencing in 1986 and completed in 1993. It was built with much planning, utilising local artisans at great financial cost. According to my research it cost US$80 million with King Hussan covering a third of the cost with the rest being born by the people of Morocco. It has become the major landmark of Casablanca. The mosque features hand-carved stone and wood, marble flooring and inlay, gilded cedar ceilings, exquisite zellij (colourful ceramic tiling) and beautiful Murano chandeliers.
I have heard that it worth taking one of the guided tours when prayer is not occurring just to see the amazing internal tiling and chandeliers. Ultra-modern features include a heated floor, automatic opening doors made from brass and titanium, a glass floor for worshippers who can view the ocean below, and a roof that can be opened up during nice weather. I stood outside one of the amazing brass and titanium doors as it was opening up for prayer time right in front of me.
I have researched about the mosques and there is conflicting reports on whether this is the 2nd or 3rd largest mosque in the world. One source says it’s the third largest after Mecca (the Great Mosque of Mecca) and the other in Medina, Saudi Arabia. Other sources say that it’s the 2nd largest mosque and 3rd largest religious building in the world. Whatever the correct ranking is, the Hassan Mosque is rather impressive up close on the outside.
There is room for 25,000 worshippers to be accommodated inside with a further 80,000 located in the extensive courtyard surrounding the mosque. There is an upper balcony that can hold 5,000 women also. The mosque site covers 9 hectares and with the building of it the foundations required 26,000 cubic metres of concrete and 59,000 cubic metres of rock to control the swell of the Atlantic Ocean. It was a big construction back in the 80s.
The two viewing perspectives of Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.
And like all grand places, it has to be cleaned. According to one article I read, there are 200 people involved in cleaning the mosque on a daily basis – with dimensions such as these: 200m long, 100m wide and 60m tall with a 210m tall minaret – there is always something to clean.
We enjoy wandering around the outer perimeter of the mosque and then we walk along the Atlantic ocean foreshore. We watch the many kids taking a dip in the ocean, avoiding the large rocks that have been placed along the foreshore as part of reclaimed land. And then it’s on to finding the Old Medina of Casablanca.
Casablanca’s Old Medina
We pull out the Google Maps app to help give us with directions to the Old Medina. We are currently on the main boulevard that hugs the Atlantic coastline. The coastline is completely cordoned off as there are extensive works being carried out on the beach side which looks like a multimillion dollar upgrade to the area. The girls are already over the “walking aimlessly around” as they tell us and are quick to add in a variety of negative comments. But we soldier on. We have to experience the medina.
We walk up the long streets of Casablanca until we hit a market area that leads into a network of narrow laneways. This is it – the old medina. So what exactly is a medina? A medina here in Morocco means an old Arab or non-European quarter of a North African town. It’s typically a walled area with many narrow maze-like streets. Medina in modern-day Arabic means town or city. And I am glad we found it. It’s a place I could happily get lost in with a camera. However, I am discovering that the Moroccan people are sensitive to photography and I must perform it as discreetly as possible.
As we walk along the narrow laneways of the intriguing medina people – mainly men – stare at us as we walk past and make some sort of comment in Arabic. The girls get a lot of unwanted attention here. We are wearing jeans and baggy t-shirts, nothing that will bring obvious attraction from the young men of Morocco onto us, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Eyes are fixed on the young female foreigners and although some comments are made in Arabic many other onlookers are happy to smile at us with a greeting of Bonjour as we stroll past. The girls don’t particularly enjoy being watched (it takes them back to Buldana) but we are experts at keeping our eyes ahead and enjoy this old and unique part of old Casablanca.
Off to the side of the streets in the medina are the even narrower lanes that are squeezed between two looming apartment blocks. These lanes provide access to the doorways that lead up the apartment block. The laneways are often very colourfully painted or tiled and in all of them, as we glance up, is washing hanging out to dry. It’s a vibrant place full of culture and life.
Part of the girl’s problem is that we should have stopped off at the café to grab a bite to eat before entering the old medina. Once inside the medina there’s really nowhere to sit and eat. Space is extremely limited. We pass small cafes and purchase some water, a tuna can shop that makes sandwiches, and a butcher who operates a small barbecue out the front of his shop who will cook up any meat we’d like. But we keep walking until we come to the medina outer wall, near the old medina clock tower and luckily I see an ‘i’ for information.
There we grab some pamphlets and have a chat to the information stand man who speaks good English. Unfortunately, the information stand has run out of maps. But he shows us where we can get some food at a place called International Square. He tells us “go out here of the walled medina, walk straight and it’s right at the lights.” So we take his easy to follow directions, TURNING right at the lights. But we just can’t locate this international food court he mentioned. The girls are turning into grizzly bears. After walking around the main tourist area of Casablanca we give up on finding International Square and follow the simple arrows to McDonalds.
And that’s when we discover that McDonalds is part of the international food court – and it’s right at the lights. There was no turning right at the lights. A completely lost in translation moment. So we walk in and discover other western fast food chains under the one roof of this train station. We sit down and rest our sore feet enjoying a Big Mac meal. I know it’s horrible to think we are in a foreign country such as exotic Morocco and having to resort to the Big Mac but it is so.
Next time we will hopefully be able to eat at Mr Harim’s Taco restaurant that he own and operates in Casablanca.
We purchase tickets at the Casa Port train station for Berrechid. It’s a small train of only three carriages long and the train is a normal suburban train. We hope we’re on the right train! We realise that there are two train stations in Casablanca – Casa Port (located at International Square) and Casa Voyageurs (which seems to be the main train station in Casablanca).
We are a little uneasy about missing the stop for Berrechid as we need to be back in time to take our English language conversation classes. So Steve makes an enquiry with a man sitting in the same carriage. He tells us we are a few stops away. This friendly man comes up and sits with us and asks all about where we are from and what we are doing in Morocco. We discover he commutes to and from Casablanca for work, and lives on the outer outskirts of the district. It’s so nice to connect with the locals.
The view of the outskirts of Casablanca city and the countryside from the train is a scorched golden brown. Such an arid country in the summer time.
We reach our destination and hail two blue petit taxis and we zoom off back to the British Language Academy with big smiles on our face. We did it!