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.


nasshi said...

The US Government spends a lot of money on cultural heritage too - just think the Smithsonian Museums. Each place or nation has a "cultural vice" that they need to indulge in, and well, Mosque Al Hassan II just happens to be Dar El-Beida's.

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