Monday, November 28 – Ecumenism in Casablanca
We set the clocks back another hour last night, so we were only 5 hours ahead of the East Coast now. We took advantage of the extra hour of sleep so we could be ready to leave the ship for our 9:00 a.m. tour. This was our only real shore excursion [not counting our abortive lunch in Florence].
There were only the 2 of us. D made no effort to find people on Cruise Critic to share the expenses. That decision made the tour much more expensive but meant we did not to worry about what other people wanted to do; we have had too many tours derailed by other, selfish travelers. Sadly, they do not even know that they have done it.
Today’s tour was a Jewish Heritage Tour of Casablanca and it delivered everything it promised and then some. We have been here twice before but never toured the city itself. In the Fall of 2001, we took a HAL tour to Marrakech. In 2011, we saw the Hassan II mosque from the outside and briefly visited a synagogue on our way to Rabat. Today was all Casablanca, all the time.
We met our guide, Abdel, just after 9:00 and luxuriated in being the only in a six-passenger minivan. The crown jewel in the Casablanca skyline is the Hassan II mosque, named for its benefactor. Although the French architect was not Muslim, he had studied Arab and Moroccan design elements and created the third largest mosque in the world [after Mecca and Medina]. The interior can accommodate 25000 worshippers at one time with men on the first floor and women in the balcony. The courtyard can hold even more, perhaps another 50000 or more, for Ramadan.
Because the building has no air-conditioning, the ceiling of the main sanctuary is designed to retract to let in fresh air. So many thousands of people can generate a lot of heat and sweat in closed environment. For cooler weather, the floors both inside and out can be heated by pumping warm water through built-in pipes. By the same token, cool water can be used in hot weather to make the men on their prayer rugs more comfortable.
The mosque complex is really a small city. It includes not only the mosque itself but also offices, classrooms and nearby buildings as well. The interior of the sanctuary is approximately 200 meters long and 100 meters wide which makes it more than 4 acres under one roof. The retractable ceiling was almost 70 meters high [if memory serves correctly]. It is really big.
Abdel parked the car and walked us to the Hassan II mosque and then into its bowels to purchase our tickets [which were included in the price of our tour]. However, he did not accompany us on the tour; instead, we had to wait for a group of English speakers to gather before the mosque’s own guide showed us around. Because talking to any group of tourists is like herding cats, there were some gaps in our presentation because the guide would talk before everyone had caught up with her.
If we heard her correctly, the wood used for the women’s balcony and other structures was cedar because it resists the effects of salt water. For the same reason, titanium is used throughout the complex because in addition to being light and strong, it does not corrode. This is important because the mosque is built partly over the incoming Atlantic Ocean. There was a Quranic verse Hassan II liked which referred to God and water, so the architect incorporated the water in the design. The esplanade around the mosque offers a magnificent view of the ocean.
The tour was not easy on the knees. First we climbed up stairs to get from the street to the grounds of the mosque. Then we went down stairs to purchase the tickets and back up for the tour. After we finished in the sanctuary, we went down again to see the men’s ablution room before struggling up more steps to leave the mosque.
The ablution room was a tremendous facility with rows and rows of circular washing stations. Muslims must wash before praying and the place to do that at Hassan II [the ablution room] must be able to accommodate thousands of people. Although the stations were stone, the room had an industrial feel to it. We have been to other mosques which had much more modest – and often outdoor – facilities.
Naturally, we had to remove our shoes before we could walk on the carpets of the mosque. In other places, we left our shoes in a rack and retrieved them when we left. Here, however, we were issued plastic bags so we could carry them with us. As we left the sanctuary, we put our shows back on and deposited the bags for recycling.
And after all the worry about the scarf, MA did not have to cover her head! It’s a good thing she likes the scarf she bought yesterday.
Since this was supposed to be a JEWISH Heritage tour, and we had already spent over an hour at Hassan II, we continued onward with Abdel to the Beth El Synagogue. This particular synagogue is best known for its 10 stained glass windows which added visual warmth to the sanctuary. This is a typical older synagogue with the bima [the altar] in the center of the sanctuary. The Ark containing the Old Testament scrolls is on the far side of the room opposite the entry with the bima in between. It was a lovely little building and D put money in a slot marked “for the synagogue.” There was one marked “for the poor,” but they are on their own this time.
Abdel then proceeded to give us a driving tour of Casablanca including neighborhoods both rich and not. The largest population of Jews lives in the Bordeaux area, but it is a mixture of Arabs, Moroccans, Christians and Jews. It is by no means a ghetto. The old Jewish section, the mellah, was more of a segregated area but there has been no interference or prejudice against Morocco’s Jews. In the old days, the mellah [a word meaning salt because many of the Jews were salt merchants] sat on one side of the king’s palace and the Muslims sat on the other. As Abdel said, the Jews and the Muslims have so much in common including dietary laws that there is no reason for them not to get along.
Abdel is extremely proud of his country and king. He brags about the religious tolerance shown in all levels of Moroccan society from the royals on down. As evidence, there are still about a dozen active, but small, Jewish congregations in Casablanca where 4000 of Morocco’s 4500 remaining Jews live.
In 2001, Jon and Briton told us to skip Casablanca because it was just a big European city. Today, we saw the proof of that statement. Casablanca is a city of neighborhoods each of which has its own identity. We saw great mid-century homes surrounded by walls topped with bougainvillea in at least 4 colors. There were apartment blocks, both mid-century and more recent; luxury hotels; slums; and everything in between. There is a portion of the Corniche which has private beaches and another section with public beaches; the access points on the public beach are numbered to make it easier to find friends. Each section of the public beach has a different vendor for beach furniture and food.
Speaking of food, all of the usual players are here although their numbers are not as great as elsewhere. Pizza Hut and KFC are not hard to find and McDonald’s is all over, too. Abdel told us that McDonald’s observes all of the halal dietary restrictions in preparing its food. The others may as well, but the laws are not as strict on their menu items.
Many Casablancans still buy their groceries the traditional way by going from vendor to vendor for different food types such as cheese, fish, meat and vegetables. Only recently has the concept of the supermarket begun to take hold. Since we did not see any, we had to take Abdel’s word for it. We did see a modern shopping center past the public beaches. We were told there is another one farther out. Again, malls are a new concept in an ancient country.
Back to the tour. Our last stop was at the Jewish Museum. It is housed in a former home for orphans and still bears the name of its benefactor on the exterior wall. Like Beth El, it is small but houses several old synagogues or, at least, their bimas. There were relics from Moroccan synagogues, candelabra, jewelry and a whole display of hamsas. Clothing from the early 1900s was on display along with dolls dressed as Jewish women would have been in various cities in the 1930s. It was all interesting but there was no docent to put it into context and Abdel just turned us loose and waited for us. We had had the same experience at Beth El. Even so, the museum was worth visiting and we were able to get some good, if illegal, photos.
When we returned to the car from the museum, we told Abdel that it was time for lunch. He offered halal, kosher or anything else we wanted. We told him to choose something he liked because we had no restrictions. He decided on fish. We thought we would be going to a restaurant or café that specialized in fish, but, instead, he took us to the fish area of a local market. The journey was not without its tense moments as he tried to find parking. Finally, he found a spot but had to pay [i.e., bribe] someone to get the spot and guarantee the car’s safety. We had earlier discussed the Arab tradition of baksheesh and laughed at the fact that, despite his protestations that it didn’t exist anymore, he had had to use it to park.
The market had vegetable sellers, fish mongers, poultry vendors and others. He took us to his favorite fish stall and asked if we liked sardines. Well, these were not in a tin can but on ice. Since he seemed to want them, D agreed to share some of the small herring with him. Alas, there was no sour cream and onions to go with them. MA did not want sardines in any form, so Abdel and the vendor picked a nice fish – perhaps haddock, perhaps halibut, perhaps something else – and we were done with this part of the transaction. We were surprised to see many of the fish vendors selling prawns and oysters since they are not kosher, but we never really asked about this seeming dichotomy.
We walked out of the market and across an alleyway to a series of tables where we sat down. Soon, we were brought plates of salad with fresh tomatoes, onions and cucumber. Then we discovered bowls of lentils in front of us and delicious local bread. Next came the sardines grilled with salt [too much of it for D]. Abdel ate with his hands, but D tried to eat them with a knife and fork. While we were eating the sardines, roasted green peppers dusted with cumin were put on the table. Around the time we had all had enough to eat, MA’s fish arrived. It had been split in halve and cooked to perfection. We were so stuffed with all of this food [and our standard-issue Cokes] that we sent half of the fish and a small loaf of the bread home with Abdel. He paid in dirham, the Moroccan currency and told us that it was the equivalent of $25US. We had no reason not to accept this and paid this and a handsome tip when we returned to the pier.
We finally waddled out of the café and through more of the market. We saw flower arrangements and Abdel told us that it has been only recently that people have begun to give flowers as gifts. Prior to this, people brought salt, bread and even money as presents when visiting. We wound around the exterior of the market, retrieved the car [and paid the baksheesh] and decided to call it a day.
TOMORROW – A Sea Day