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August 16th 2008 by Tina

Posted under Morocco

The real Casablanca is nothing like the movie. The movie wasn’t even filmed there, in fact; it was filmed in Hollywood and based on a hotel in Tangier. Casablanca is Morocco’s most cosmopolitan and industrial city. A taxi driver proudly informed us, “Casablanca is not for tourists. Casablanca is for business.” We arrived by train from Marrakech, a comfortable three-hour ride through the desolate Sahara Desert; and, upon reading that Casablanca’s restaurants serve up excellent seafood, we splurged on fruits des mer and another impressive bottle of Moroccan red wine at a French Provencal place near our hotel.

The French have left a lasting mark on Casablanca and much of Morocco in the form of language, architecture and infrastructure. After their native Moroccan Arabic, the locals speak fluent French, passable Spanish and bits of English. Our “functional French” seems to be better understood (or at least better tolerated) in Morocco than in France. Casablanca’s Art Deco facades, wide boulevards, public parks, sidewalk cafes, and efficient railway system are all French additions from the early 1900s when Casablanca was declared a French Protectorate.

There is a noticeable difference between the people in Casablanca and the people in Marrakech, particularly in the interactions between the sexes. More women, especially in the 20-30 age range, wear Western clothing and men and women socialize more freely in public. That said, there are still plenty of cafes frequented by locals at which women are unwelcome or too intimidated to patronize alone. While the medina hums with old Arabic traditions and lifestyles, the increasing opportunities and affluence in the port city are a catalyst for modernism.

The crown jewel of Casablanca is the Hassan II Mosque, set on a rocky outcrop of coastline. Completed in 1993, the world’s third largest mosque (after Mecca and Medina) is a decadent display of Arab-Islamic art and architecture, incorporating modern amenities such as a central heating system for warming the marble floors in winter, a retractable roof, and a laser beam that points toward Mecca at night. At 200 meters in height, its minaret is the tallest religious minaret in the world.

The only way for non-Muslims to see the inside of the mosque is through the pricey guided tour but when we gazed upon its stunning marble exterior, we knew it would be worth the price of admission. I am fascinated (obsessed, my husband might say) by Islam and I was pleased with the explanations and demonstrations offered by our English-speaking guide. Our tour began in the Prayer Hall, the most magnificent room in the mosque with its grand arches, elegantly carved stucco, rose granite pillars, Italian chandeliers, gleaming Moroccan marble floor, and carved cedar retractable ceiling. A balcony on each side of the hall was designed for women to pray, protected from the sinful gazes of men, behind a wooden lattice screen.

In Islamic communities, the muezzin sings a hypnotic chant over a loudspeaker, calling the faithful to the mosque for the five-times-daily prayer. Before each prayer, Muslims must wash their feet, hands, ears, nose and face to spiritually cleanse themselves for the ritual. Underneath the Prayer Hall, the Ablution Hall contains 41 marble fountains for performing the ablution, or spiritual cleansing. Interestingly, if one does not have access to water at prayer time, he can imitate the movements of washing his feet, face and hands and it is thought to achieve the same spiritual result. Our guide kneeled beside one of the fountains and demonstrated the ablution with the thoroughness and precision of lifelong practice.

Our tour concluded with a tour of two hammams – a Moroccan hammam and a Turkish hammam. A traditional Moroccan hammam contains four rooms, each kept at different temperatures. The bather begins in the hottest room to sweat out all of the toxins and works his/her way to the coolest room. The Turkish hammam, or Turkish bath, was a large, dimly-lit room almost entirely encompassed by a shallow pool. Unfortunately, the pool had been drained for cleaning, which detracted from the ambience. The hammams at the Hassan II Mosque are not working hammams; however, it was easy to imagine both bathrooms full of the steamy conversation and heated debates that are so characteristic of Arab men, huddled around an outdoor table or under a shady tree.

While Casablanca was nothing like the movie (and not exactly brimming with tourist sites) our visit to the Hassan II Mosque made the trip worthwhile. Most mosques are closed to non-Muslims so we were fortunate for the opportunity to view a work of such remarkable craftsmanship and to gain personal insight into the world’s most media-hyped religion.

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