Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Crystal Symphony Entry 10


On land, the city of Casablanca is most famous for the classic 1943 movie starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman . On the ship, it is notorious for being totally unlike the movie (which, in retrospect, should not be too surprising as the movie was filmed on a lot in Los Angeles). Many of the crew who have been here before decided to give it a pass, and the guest newsletter contains a wonderful little warning that I've paraphrased here: “Casablanca is not yet up to the first class tourist standards of Europe with regards to buses and drivers. Occasionally tours may encounter delays and unplanned events. Try to accept these events as cultural experiences.” Despite (or perhaps because of) this obnoxious warning I headed out into the town after crew drill -- aren't unplanned events and cultural experiences the point of traveling?

Oh, and "town" isn't quite the right word. Casablanca is a city of four million people; its history dates back eight thousand years to the Phoenicians, but the modern city was founded as a French settlement at the beginning of the 20th century (Portugal had largely abandoned it two hundred years before). The city speaks a mixture of French and Arabic, although American dollars are widely accepted along with Dirham (the local currency) and Euros. Luckily I have a Quebecois friend on board the ship!

A group of us negotiated with a taxi driver to take a little tour around the city. After deciding on a price we walked out to the car, a battered old diesel BMW with strange elongated doors. It had the body of a sedan but the seating of a van, with one manual window and one automatic. The driver had a cassette mix tape playing that he would rewind every few minutes – I don't know if the Gnawa music and wailing double-reeded horns were for the benefit of us, the tourists, or if he was actually enjoying it. Sylvain, my Quebecois friend, sat in front and chatted happily away with the driver in French while we watched the city go by.

It was my first time on the mainland of the African continent – the Canaries and Madeira are technically part of Africa, but I don't think they really count. It was also my first time in a Muslim country. The dress was half Western and half North African – long, dark colored robes that are good for cutting the heat. Long sleeves and pants are the norm – very few people have exposed forearms or calves. It's hot already, but the sea breeze keeps things cool enough. Inland it's already over forty degrees centigrade.

Our first stop was the Hassan II mosque. This is a relatively new mosque, completed in 1980 for a cost of half a billion dollars. It has the highest minaret in the world, can hold 20,000 people in the prayer hall, and at night shoots a laser 30 kilometers towards Mecca.  In the thirty years since it was built it has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Casablanca. Muslim architecture is fascinating because it contains no representative imagery – everything is abstract and symbolic (contrast this with the Christian architecture in nearby Spain, where everything is adorned with images of saints and martyrs). The ceilings, floors, walls, and most other things are covered in complicated patterns either carved into the stone or created through delicate inlaid mosaics. The more delicate layers of patterning are not visible until you've looked at a certain surface for a period of time . . . they disappear into the larger shapes, which in turn disappear into the larger shapes of the building itself. The end result is almost on the level of an optical illusion, where different layers of complication can lie invisible, nested inside one another.

I didn't go inside, as I wanted to respect their place of worship, but I did peek inside the massive gateway to the hall. People were walking past me (men through one door, women through another), slipping out of their shoes at the gateway. It was a beautiful setting – right on the ocean, with the constant sound of the pounding waves and the bright African sun overhead. There was a sign advertising tours (I think – it was in French, after all . . .) but we wanted to see some other parts of the city.

The driver took us along the seaside next. This was definitely the upscale, touristy section of town, full of bars catering to Europeans and cheap beach side resorts. There was even a McDonald's; I don't know if they had McCousCous, but I sort of hope not. Bogart and Bergman would not have looked nearly as good sitting at a plastic booth behind the golden arches.

Our driver dropped us off in another part of town, near a market, so that we could explore. Some of my companions got trapped in a carpet store (the salesperson actually said, “We are not pushy salespeople here!” as he was being a pushy salesperson . . . I was suspect that our driver was getting a cut). As we waited outside the carpet shop, the only girl in our group was subjected to a series of awkward English compliments . . . as a blond young woman, she sticks out in Morocco, and so the men say things that don't really translate right. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like barbie?” is not really a compliment back home, after all. The cab driver had been calling her “belle gazelle” in French which was sort of endearing, but all in all it seems that Morocco is a tough place for Western women.

I began to sense that my companions were feeling a little out of place . . . those of us who had escaped from the rug shop decided to wait by the car until the others emerged (I had hoped they'd come out with big rolls of fabric, but no luck). I, on the other hand, elected to explore a bit, since I don't know when I'll be in Morocco again. The main market was a few streets over, and here I began to feel a lot more comfortable. It was not at all a tourist market – this was a street market in the truest sense of the word, as cars and motorcycles were constantly pushing their way through crowds of people and between vendors' carts. I saw all sorts of things for sale – mostly food, but also questionable electronics, stacks of tires, and books in a wide variety of languages. The degree to which everything was mixed together was fascinating – you could find yourself swept along by a group of children just out of school, stepping over the legs of somewhere working on a car in the middle of the street, while three feet to your left there are suited businessmen taking tea at a small cafe. My favorite sight was the old lady selling passports – a rainbow of booklets in muted hues, presumably liberated from unfortunate tourists. I almost wanted to browse just out of curiosity.

I was surrounded by all sorts of smells. The fumes from a passing moped, a brief blast of roast chicken, and the bitter whiff of hashish wafting out of some darkened corner were all recurring themes. Stores and restaurants that were contained in buildings seem to spill out into the street during the day, only to close at night like a row of blooming flowers. One bakery even brought their ovens onto the sidewalk, a strategy that must be life saving when summer really gets going.

We eventually made our way back to the ship and the numbing safety of our tan plastic cubicles.  I am entirely alone in my opinion here on board, but I liked Casablanca. People dislike it because it isn't like the movie, but I disagree. It's an industrial, hot, grimy, jumbled together kind of place with a weird mixture of languages, cultures and customs -- and I like it all the better for those things. If we can let go of our compulsion to judge a place by our own standards, we can begin to see it for what it is. The fifth rule of the camino, “Sometimes there are mountains,” and its corollary, “Sometimes there aren't,” definitely applies here. The world is just the world, whether there are mountains or not, and the Buddha is as surely in the acrid stench of a moped in Casablanca as it is in a Shinto temple on Mount Fuji. People forget that Bogart and Bergman are acting out a story set in a hot, grimy, stench-ridden, smoke-filled gambling hall, located in a city rife with crime and occupied by a fascist state. The beauty of the story is not in the locale; the beauty is in the blossoming of love in a place that is so ugly and worn.  In this respect, I think Casablanca is exactly like it was in the movie.

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