Morocco – the Northern Cities

I thought that travelling through Morocco during Ramadan would be as daunting as those “dry and hungry days” I faced in the Arabian Gulf during this period of fasting, but with the exception of local hotels, restaurants and food stalls being closed during the day, tourist hotels served food continuously (a couple of them even had a wine and spirits menu for room service), and supermarkets were open for purchasing food to be eaten in private, or as my group did, as picnic lunches in deserted public parks or hotel rooms whenever we took a break from our travels.

Thus fortified, we covered over 2000 kilometres and many locations. I will, therefore, break this travelogue into two parts: the first covering the better-known northern cities, and the second part covering the southern half of the country beyond the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara—two different geographies, climates, and experiences.

We began in bustling Casablanca (don’t drive here, for no one obeys traffic signals), the city that’s renowned for Rick’s Café and “Play it again, Sam.” – don’t bother – it’s just another bar with more tourists outside taking pictures than listening to (the sons of) Sam inside. But the Hassan II Mosque by the water overlooking the city is well worth the visit. Built as a monument to its namesake king, and completed in 1993, it is an architectural marvel, constructed exclusively with local materials (except for the Italian chandeliers) and riddled with Tadelakt and Zellige art, cedar wood, and marble. This jewel in the crown reverses the fate of the other incomplete Hassan Tower and mosque in Rabat of the Almohad dynasty that was never completed in the 12th century and was finally put asunder when the Great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 rippled through North Africa. The modern Hassan II Mosque is massive, accommodating 2500 worshippers inside and another 8000 outside, with a slew of water fountains below stairs for ablutions – mind the slippery floor, though! Another good visit is to the Jewish Museum, located in a suburb, but hold onto your taxi, for there is no way back unless you walk. Jews made Morocco their home from Roman times, even inventing their own form of Judeo-Arabic (spoken Arabic transcribed in Hebrew), until Israel opened up to take them away from the fear of pogroms. Every city has a historical Jewish quarter, now mostly populated by the majority Berbers.

Leaving Casablanca, we headed north to Rabat, administrative capital of the country, and showpiece city, replete with obelisk-like Mohammed VI Tower (second tallest in Africa), sports complex, and concert hall resembling a space station. The king has two palaces in the city – one residential and the other ceremonial. It appears the locals grant him his excess, for this king has introduced laws to improve the condition of women, although attitudes will take longer to change. The Kasbah is pristine, unlike the ones we were to visit later in Fes and Marakech. Most northern cities have an old city and a new one, the latter built by the French during its colonial occupation of the country from 1905-56, while the former is the evolved one over the centuries. The eccentricity of this “evolution” was evident when standing on the walls of Rabat’s Kasbah overlooking the ocean, for I saw the juxtaposition of the city’s public beach next to a graveyard, separated only by a wall.

Exiting Rabat, we travelled inland, traversing an agricultural plain that stretched to the horizon on both sides, filled with olive and fruit trees, to the UNESCO-preserved city of Meknes, a former capital of the country in the late17th/early 18th centuries for only one sultan, a not very agreeable fellow (those who glanced at his wives or concubines were punished by death), who preferred this hideout to the traditional ancient capitals of Fes and Marakech. The walled medina, under restoration in many places, was pristine inside, although the piling up and enmeshing of houses must make it a property tax inspector’s nightmare. The signature exhibit of the city is Sultan Moulay Ismail’s mausoleum where he and his family are interred. Sultan Moulay, a contemporary of King Louis XIV, traded gifts with the Sun King to keep him at bay. Two clocks from Louis sit beside Moulay’s tomb, symbolic perhaps to the countdown before France finally occupied most of Morocco two centuries later. I discovered the art of Damascene jewellery in Meknes and bought myself a laughing bird made of finely inlaid silver, forgetting the exchange rate and ending up paying ten times more than I thought I was paying. Now the bird sits on my dining table having the last laugh at me. Buying it was still worth it!

A short tide outside Meknes lies the ruin of a Roman settlement, Volubilis, and staring down it from the next hill is the town of Moulay Idris Zerhoun, birthplace of the Idrissid dynasty, the first Islamic dynasty of Morocco, and the ones who displaced the Romans. Volubilis was a functioning settlement even after the Romans abandoned it with the collapsing of their empire, but it was completely destroyed when that great leveller, the Great Lisbon Earthquake again, came calling. Even today, only half of the ruins are excavated, the other half awaits funding in order to be re-discovered, and yet a walk through what exists is sufficient to evoke the grandeur of that period. Hercules, Cupid, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva are well represented among the floor mosaics uncovered.

Onto Chefchaouen, the blue Andalusian city falling down a mountain, the only one in the smaller Spanish part of Morocco we visited, another “tourist” city of fashionable hotels, shops and an ultra-clean medina with its signature blue-plastered walls. The Riad we stayed at was the best accommodation on the tour, it’s architecture hacienda-style, every door and window round-shaped. The subtle, multicoloured lights strategically hidden behind plants and stones, evoked a magical and romantic mood. This city was granted to the Jews and Moors fleeing Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, and they have done their part to make it the showpiece it is, sticking it to old Ferdy and Bella for their inhospitality.

Finally, Fes – the place I’d been most wanting to visit, and it did not disappoint. Nestled between the coastal Rif mountains and the Mid-Atlas range, this city had not two but three sections: the modern French one, an old city (circa 14th century AD), and an ancient city (circa 9th century, built by Moulay Idris’s son, Idris II). The ancient one is four times the size of the old city, and is highly overpopulated with up to 10 families sharing a dwelling; this is where we took our walking tour (a local guide is advisable otherwise you will get lost in the maze of streets that go on forever and defy logic in their layout). Ancient commerce and specialty areas dedicated to different trades are still in evidence – hence streets not broader than alleyways are dedicated to leather, pottery, handicrafts, spices, carpets, weaving, perfumes, meat; and buildings such as madrasas, universities, mosques, and hotels are all crammed into this well-ventilated labyrinth. Frequently, a scooter, donkey, handcart, or wheelchair barges-in with the cry “Palak, palak,” to add to the crush – thank heavens, Covid-19 is an afterthought at this point.   The bustling streets are so narrow in places you have to suck in your gut and go in sideways – reminding me of the darker corners of Venice, without the water gurgling nearby – and you could then suddenly emerge into an elegant building of tall ceilings and elaborate interior décor, like the caravanserai we visited or the riad we had lunch in.

As the breaking of the fast and the evening call to prayer arrives, the 300 mosques in the city that earn it the title of “Religious Capital of Morocco” blare out from their minarets, taking me back to my days in the Middle East. But this is North Africa, I had to remind myself. Yet this land has absorbed many influences over the centuries: Roman, Jew, Arab, French and Spanish, and their associated religions, mixing with the indigenous Berber. Morocco is like a beach facing the onslaught of continuous waves washing over it and leaving behind a rich residue to be experienced by travellers like us. We head to a local house for dinner, to sample the salty and sweet pastilla…

(To be continued…)

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