Saturday, September 6, 2014

Casablanca Morocco - First Impressions

I have been on sort of hiatus with my blogging.  For a while.... I just did not have time to write about some of my travels.... Rome, Israel, Germany, Cyprus.... none of these did I share.  Now I find myself  taking up residence in a new country.  Over the summer, many people asked me why I hadn't been writing lately.  Well that seemed to indicate to me that someone was at least interested, so I am going to make a reasonable attempt to get a little caught up.  Though some posts may be retroactive.


Morocco.  As I write the English name for this country ... it immediately conjures up a variety of exotic images.  It's funny, when I told people I was moving here, the common response was "Now I will visit you!"  Funny considering how fascinating and beautiful Turkey and Istanbul are.  But then again, Americans have ingrained ideas about Morocco, given the movie Casablanca, and the CS&N song... Marakesh Express. Many think of Morocco as that war time settlement which was largely populated by the British and the French, and they have that beautiful but sad image of Bogart and Bergman clutching at the end of their romantic road during the last great war.  There is a Rick's Cafe (Link to Cafe ) in Casablanca, and they loop the movie in the bar, but the establishment is only 10 years old and is owned by a former teacher who was a smart cookie when it came to cashing in on the stubborn movie image.  It's a fairly decent restaurant with an impressive wine menu, and yes, it looks just like the joint in the movie.

But again, that isn't Casablanca.  I haven't been to Marakesh, but I've read enough of the beat stories that were written during the bohemian heyday to know that also is not the real Morocco, though from what I hear, Marakesh makes every effort to live up to the reputation, including snake charmers and the Yves St. Laurent garden.

At this writing... I haven't really spread my wings much in the city, or the country.  I am still getting used to this new setting, and still basking in the warm feelings stemming from a quick trip back to the US for one of my children's wedding.

People ask me how Morocco differs from Turkey.  That's a very good question.
  • Food & Wine
  • People
  • Economics
  • Fashion
  • Male / Female Dynamics
  • Call to Prayer
  • Entertainment
One by one.... the food in Turkey is heavy on fruits and vegetables.  Morocco also boasts fresh and unadulterated fruit and veggies.... probably more so than Turkey as multinational companies have invaded agriculture more in Turkey than here.  Food is cheaper, cheese and pastries are (according solely to my taste preferences) far superior and abundant - owing to a lingering French presence.  Wine and alcohol in general are much more difficult to come by though.  It takes planning and an excursion to procure good wine. Though because of the French connection, GOOD wines are available for a price.  Even some of the Moroccan wines emerging on the market are are quite palatable.  More on that after my first wine/cheese party.  Casablanca proffers a wide variety of fresh fish (similar to seaside Turkey) and slabs of meet hang from hooks in many a roadside market.  Indeed one of the most frequented restaurants here is called the Gas Station Restaurant by expats (because it is right behind the gas station), and is always packed.  You go to a barbecue area, choose your meet entre'... they then grill it for you and bring it to your table along with your accompaniments.  There is even a mosque for you to say your prayers in should the call come at dinner time.  Similar establishments exist in Istanbul, but not on this scale.

My personal Moroccan culinary favourite is Bastille - a chicken pie layered with puff pastry, almonds, spices and topped with powdered sugar.  I have yet to order a fresh one, but when I do.... I will certainly write about it.

Moroccan people are interesting, willing to interact and help, hospitable and if my students are any indication... very respectful.  That does not carry over to the roadways.  More on this when I can video a typical driving excursion.  Yes.... I drive in Casablanca.  The people are different definitely than Turks.  The subtle nuances are most visible in the student population I work with.  As I said... I have had limited community exposure outside of the confines of my school, so I will continue to develop relationships with Moroccans and continue to explore this culture more in depth.

There is definitely a third world culture here in Casablanca.  Much more so than in Turkey.  Istanbul itself is a rich city, chic, fast, and extremely cosmopolitan.  Casablanca, as the economic hub of Morocco is none of these.

And that's ok.  As a matter of fact, it seems more real to me.  There are a few nightclubs here, but I have yet to see a Ferrari or Lamborghini racing down the street or parked in front of the market, much less several of them in the space of one day.  Here I see Kangoos (yep, it's a real model), beat up Renaults, some BMW's,  yesterday a Kia, and on occasion a Honda or Toyota.  The lack of fancy expensive cars on the roadways may be due to the fact that probably 90% of the automobiles I have seen here have at least one piece of evidence of being battered in a driving altercation.  I have seen bodies under cars too....  When I first realised I would be moving here, I had the bright idea of purchasing a pretty little Vespa... nor longer do I harbour this romantic image.  I was disabused of this notion almost immediately.  Anyone who thinks Istanbul driving is crazy.... well, come drive with me here.  When the road is shared with; pedestrians who are highly fatalistic in their notion of their ability to cross the street without regard to personal mortality...donkeys who move at a fast little clip dragging behind some cart full of prickly pear cactus fruit or melons... tricycle trucks... an amazing little piece of machinery...and finally,  the death wish scooters sometimes carrying a family of three or four.... you know you are not in a wealthy city anymore.

Fashion - can you say jalaba? 

Male / Female dynamics are strange and require walking a tightrope between western friendliness and Moroccan taboo, particularly if you are a woman.  I have been cautioned to keep eyes down in public.  NO EYE CONTACT WITH ANY MAN I DO NOT KNOW.  To do so is to invite harassment, interest, or worse.  To be quite ruthlessly honest... I haven't seen many Moroccan men that can compare in the looks department with Turkish men.  Just saying.  On the other hand, I do hear their mind set with regard to relationships can be just as duplicitous.  

Oh my how the call to prayer differs here.  Here it is live, not recorded as in Istanbul.  They NEVER start at the same time... which is in some ways, kind of charming.  The quality of the voices vary widely... and some of them - one in particular near our housing - seem to have the freedom to be rather creative with their follow up.  It is a standing puzzle in my ex-pat housing complex that one of the muzzeins follows up his call in the evening with periodic groaning.  I don't know, and I probably don't want to.  When queried about it, a Moroccan staff member who lives off campus commented... "That's weird."

 Sometimes though, when the air is just right, and I am in a room where the sound is slightly muffled.....the adnan goes out and I honestly hear what my brain interprets as hymns to God almighty.  

Entertainment is not so plentiful here.  Movies do NOT have English sub-titles, and are not played on a scheduled basis.  Concerts are rare.  Malls are few and far between with the exception of Anfa and the new Moroc Mall, which features a cylindrical 3 story aquarium with live fish in the middle of the  mall.  Some Moroccans are entertained there by taking pictures of the escalators, or pictures of themselves by mannequins that are dressed in flowers.  There are a variety of theme parks with rides, such as the "Crazy Park" located in Dar Bouazza, and water parks that sometimes actually have water in them, and one new bowling alley that is predominantly for men.  Casablanca is not a tourist destination, but it is home for 5 million people who live and work in this not so beautiful city on the shores of the Atlantic.

What I have learned about and love in this place so far are all of the components I have described.  This is not a western city.  It is not slick, or even inviting on the surface.  Parts of it seem European because again, of the former French occupation, but for the most part it is uniquely Moroccan.  The odours, the sounds, the energy, and even the difficulties are all part of what it means to live here.  I have only been here a month, and already I have come to like the place.  It suits me for some reason.  This is what expats call the "honeymoon phase" of a move.  That may change when the weather transitions  and I have been through the cold grey season.  Time will tell.  In the mean, I am making plans to learn French and to go camping in the desert with some friends and some camels.  I am grateful to have landed here and I am looking forward to the joys that await me as I move further on up and further on into the country of Morocco.