Thursday, October 29, 2009


My camera was stolen somewhere between Madrid and Seville a few weeks back. Thus the lack of pictures here and on Facebook. Little fella had been with me for two years, photographed a dozen countries and has crossed every line of longitude on the planet. It wasn't the best camera in the world, but it was dirty and scuffed and had a good story. So the reason I haven't talked about it before is because thinking about it makes me angry. Requiescat in pace.

Fortunately, my lovely and talented friend Andrea came to visit the other week (hint, hint, everyone else) and took better pictures than I possibly could have. So, a few shots of my adoptive city:

These are the walls of the old medina that I've written about previously. It's a partially walled section of the downtown area that was - back when the French referred to the port region as 'Useful Morocco' - the entire city of Casablanca. Now it's a busy market and dense residential area:

All this is about a 20 minute walk from where I live. And just on the other side of it, on the water's edge, is the mosque I wrote about earlier. It's a structure larger than St. Peter's Basilica, but instead of walking through downtown Rome to get to it, you walk through dilapidated slums. (My friend Anthony took this one):

And finally, a little local cuisine... All kinds of things are sold on the little food carts stationed on the corner of almost every intersection and pedestrian thoroughfare. But I am an uncultured American and was fascinated that some people eat snails.

You can get a bowl like that for about a dollar. And for the record, they are delicious.

More pictures to follow, I hope. I want to splurge some of my first paycheck on a new camera to abuse over the next few years. If any of you know much about photography, please drop me a line somewhere.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Random Things

  • Not everyone speaks Arabic, French, Spanish and English, but they all speak Facebook.

  • The third pillar of Islam is Zakat - the practice of alms-giving to the less fortunate. That is why I have to walk over or around 30 disfigured hobos every Friday because there is a mosque between my apartment and work.

  • Camel sandwiches are not A) delicious, B) $2.00 or C) readily available at 11:00pm after I’ve already been drinking because they are in fact D) all of the above.

  • My friend who works for Emirates says that Moroccan flights always run out of sugar because Moroccan people put a shit-ton of it in everything. I definitely believe her because she is very pretty. But also because many Moroccan people have missing teeth.

  • Drinking is technically illegal in Morocco, so I have to buy all of my booze from the supermarket that’s owned by the King. Thanks, King Mohammed!

  • Half of all taxis have “broken meters” with air quotes. The tourist price is 10 Euros, but the real price is 10 Dirhams, which is less.

  • Imagine if the music video for “I’m on a Boat” were made in total seriousness and featured several cut scenes of questionably attractive bikini-clad women dancing by a pool for no reason. That is what every music video out of Lebanon and Egypt is like.

  • The sheesha place by my apartment is charming. Their only flavour is apple.

  • The bastardized Moroccan Arabic form of “two” is difficult to transliterate, but it sounds roughly like ‘Juzsh’, which kind of sounds like the terribly transliterated French word for juice, ‘Juszh’. I often receive two juices when I only wanted to order one.

  • When I finally get around to buying clothes (less expensive than doing laundry), I’m going to buy a shirt with ‘Armani’ on the front and ‘Prada’ on the back. Those are real things.

  • I heard a German guy tell a Nazi joke. “Have you ever been to France?” someone else asked. “No, but my grandfather was there for a few months and loved it,” he said before seeking out a high-five. Granted.

  • Syria has the best food in the Middle East, Lebanon has the prettiest girls, Algeria doesn’t get along with its neighbors, no one likes that Iranian guy with the stupid name, Turkish people drink during Ramadan and the Israeli passport stamp is to a traveler what herpes is to a college kid.

  • Casablanca is a city in transition. I see as many women in miniskirts as I do in birqas.

  • There are guys who walk around on the streets with carts who collect garbage and sell it (to the garbage store?). They advertise their business by making a sort of honking noise every 5-8 seconds that is very loud and carries a long distance. This was sad at first because poverty is a vicious cycle. But the fifteenth goddamn they wake you up with their stupid fucking goose noise is about the time when you want to donate a glass bottle to their head from your 3rd story window.

  • Peugot (a French automobile and man’s purse manufacturer) makes a motorcycle with bicycle pedals.

  • I would love to write a book or short story, but the only time I can get something amusing on paper is when I write sarcastic little lists with no cohesive meaning or value. There’s probably some sort of learning disability associated with that phenomenon that I’m too lazy to look up.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Settling In

It turns out teaching is a lot like bartending. Efficiency is a important, but communication is key. Speak slowly; use concise, simple present tense sentences and active phrasing. Gesticulate. I am good at those things. So while I've never had a job quite like this before, it feels good. Now, at least.

It's difficult to describe - or even remember - how nervous I was for my first couple days of work. I think I've sort of blacked it out of my mind like I had PTSD; buried it under some twigs in my subconscious like the cover of a pit trap - something to stumble into later and deal with in therapy. It was the result of three compounding weeks of anticipation. Moving to (yet another) new country, finding an apartment, making friends, settling into the office, finding a gym, figuring out how I was going to do laundry, etc... Miniature adventures that I relish, but that totally sapped my mental energy in fairly short order.

On Sunday, I hung my empty backpack on the curtain rod above the French doors that open onto my small balcony. It doesn't quite match the red pastel drapes, but it couldn't be more appropriate to the worn motif of the room itself. Everything had a fresh coat of paint applied to it in anticipation of our arrival, but it all still feels old. The paint still has the newborn sheen that highlights the sag and imperfections of the walls. The furniture is dark stained wood. My dresser is an elegant, preposterously heavy old thing, but missing a few handles. Laying on my stiff mattress in the middle of the day, distracted by the insane noise of the street and soaking the duvet through with afternoon sweat, it feels like home.

Casablanca is a wonderful city. Like a good expatriate, I'm slowly working my way through a few Bowles novels, and spending as much time as I can wandering the streets, eating things off of carts. The place is a farcry from the gorgeous old cities of Europe and the Middle East. It doesn't have any old architecture, fortresses or landmarks. At least, none that haven't been cannibalized for some new purpose. The whole city is painted from the same palate of beige, gray and broken cement. But it feels like a crossroads. If the United States is the mixing pot, Casablanca would be the point directly above it where the various streams of humanity cross, mid-pour. French-speaking Africans from the horn of Africa, Arabic-speaking Africans from the Sudan and Ethiopia, Arabs of every stripe, Europeans, and a spattering of Americans and Chinese. They all live here and do business in the chaos that is laissez-faire as only Africa can manage.

So I understand why guide books recommend giving the place a miss. If you only have a few days, there's really no excuse for coming to Casablanca over Marrakesh or Fez. But if you're looking for a place to settle down for a couple of months to finish that novel, this is the place.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Old Medina and Al Hassan II

Today I took a walk from my hotel, through the medina, to the city's landmark Al Hassan II mosque. It's a shame I didn't do it earlier. I really feel like I have a better understanding of this place now.

The route to the mosque from the hotel first takes you down a long, palm-shaded boulevard, capped at its north end by the American consulate. Multinational corporations are headquartered there and everything is well maintained. Traffic even seemed to be a little more contained and self-conscious than elsewhere in the city (it usually reminds me a little of Phnom Pehn, but with sand-blasted sedans instead of scooters). We walked a few miles down that street and detoured into the medina (which I talked about in the previous post). There are a number of entrances, but we walked in through the old, beautifully constructed gatehouse.

The markets within the medina are the best things I've seen since I got here. It was commerce - unadulterated and honest - as only a third world country can show you. In Western supermarkets, you buy tomatoes that were picked green half a world away and ripened stop sign red with ethylene gas. In Casablanca, the fruit bore the muddy fingerprints of the farmers who picked it. The faces of meat vendors were obscured behind a static of flies; you walked to the thudding, discordant metronome of cleavers on wood. The fish stalls were humid with stench - the bottoms of my shoes still smell like the tide. Small children kneaded dough on doorsteps; young men sold $70 "Armani" jackets (pre-haggle price); pyramids of spice in long, multi-colored rows. And so much noise.

The homes above the storefronts pulsed with movement. Shadows flitted up and down slanting stairwells and unseen children were audible. The people who lived there were very poor. (Though, it's worth noting that they are not the poorest in Casablanca. The slums - an area that provided the city with thirteen Afghan-trained suicide bombers in 2003 - are about an hour from the city. Around a million people live there.)

We walked out of the medina on the side nearest the ocean. A row of fruit stalls broke into a long expanse of empty ground where men sat and ate amidst piles of garbage and dusty avenues of foot traffic. Broken buildings flanked the space and the breeze at our backs kept the smell of the market with us as we walked. The only thing that made the empty plot of land more unusual than the bustle of the market adjacent to it was the grandiosity of the mosque the loomed above it.

The Al Hassan II mosque was built by the former King of Morocco to commemorate his 60th birthday, and to give Casablanca the distinctive landmark it seemingly lacked. It is on the sea wall about four blocks from the squalor of the medina homes, perched on a bed of stone that had been manually reclaimed from the ocean. It was designed by a French architect and cost the citizens of Morocco five hundred million dollars. It is an enormous, grand, stone blimp hangar of a structure. It is inarguably beautiful and impressive... but again; out of place.

We poked around the courtyard but didn't go in (in fact, non-Muslims can't go in without a guide). The west-facing sides of the minaret are discolored with weather damage. There were other tourists there. One might argue that they would not have chosen Morocco as their destination had it not been for the world class landmark. But I wonder.

Is "Casablanca, Morocco" really the city with the big mosque? I'm going to say 'no'. This city's draw should be literature and history. How many of those kids I saw in the medina making bread on doorsteps could have earned university degrees for $500 million? I'm no humanitarian - it just strikes me as bad economics.

Finding Beer

I don't think I'd drink if "let's go get a beer" wasn't the beginning of so many good stories. I was sitting in the lobby of my hotel with a newly befriended colleague. He made the suggestion. So began my second night in Casablanca.

"You should have not been in that neighborhood past dark," my boss said fourteen hours later. "You guys are insane."

The neighborhood in question is the one immediately outside the walls of the old medina - a walled district that houses some of the city's poorest residents. By day it is a dense, frenetic marketplace. By night, it is an eerily silent stretch of darkened storefronts and infrequent foot traffic. Anthony (my thirsty coworker) and I didn't encounter anything we perceived to be dangerous, but its potential was nearly palpable. Also, there were no bars.

The idea was to find a place where we could sit and enjoy a pair of cold beverages. The plan of action was the traveler's default: Walk until we found something. It's a good plan because even if you don't find what you're looking for, you'll quickly develop your bearings in a new city. As was the case that night. We certainly discovered where not to be at 2:00am.

Casablanca is a different city at night. People work, eat, honk their horns and converse in the streets well past dark - as late as midnight in some parts of the city. But then a switch falls into the off position and it all evaporates. No cars, no people, no noise. Street lights stay on, dutifully illuminating vacant sidewalks. It can be disconcerting.

Before I make it sound like I'm more reckless than I am (or as a post-script now that I have); there wasn't really any danger (, mom). I know what a dangerous neighborhood in a poor country looks like. As does Anthony (a man who worked for several months in Hebron and Gaza). But it was an interesting exploration of the city. You can't really know something is like in the dark unless you look.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Updates Forthcoming

I have like three updates written on my laptop, but I'm pretty sure I've been blocked from the hotel network. Apparently when my eyes see "free wifi", my brain reads "free bandwidth to totally monopolize and steal music with". The system administrater seems to have disagreed. But otherwise, everything is fine. I'll probably end up taking my computer into the office tomorrow and posting from there.

Also, ù§èé²àç French keyboards.