Morocco is a photographer’s dream. There is so much to capture, especially the architecture that reflects Morocco’s rich cultural and historical heritage. The French, Moorish and Islamic influences are very evident in doors across the country, whether they are heavily embellished horseshoe arches or simple wooden doors with peeling, decades-old paintwork and simplistic latches.
In Ait Benhaddou:
And in Casablanca:
In El Khorbat in the Todra valley:
From Marrakech: The first, brightly coloured door is in the Jardin Majorelle, the twelve-acre botanical and artist’s landscape garden, owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé.
From the hillside hamlet of Moulay Idriss:
And I haven’t even got to the port city of Essaouira yet 🙂
The sky resembled a mammoth bruise as night fell on my last evening in Casablanca. A city that is nothing like the 1940’s movie of the same name, Casa instead resembled many of the cities where old stands comfortably juxtaposed with new. Here the 5-star Hyatt Regency vies for the title of downtown landmark with the Clocktower at the busiest entrance of the old Medina. I know which I prefer 🙂
On reflection, I think my issue with the lavishness of the Hassan II Mosque began in downtown Casablanca when I happened upon a rubbish heap on an open plot, smack bang in the middle a residential-cum-business district.
In the background, the imposing minaret of the mosque towered over a jumble of plastic – bottles, crates, bales of bags, you name it – and rusty satellite dishes scattered across the unpainted, raw plaster walls of the dwellings. It seemed telling that my first glimpse of this famous landmark was in stark contrast to the surroundings.
And then I saw her. A woman of indeterminable age, she was dressed in black from top to toe, pulling a shopping bag on wheels as she picked her way across the dumpsite. When she began rummaging through the detritus, I was stunned. I had assumed she was taking a shortcut through the open lot on the way to the Medina a few blocks away. Instead she was scratching through what looked like scraps of plastic sheeting.
Even coming from a country where millions of taxpayer’s money is wasted on renaming streets after Apartheid Struggle heroes rather than uplifting previously disadvantaged communities and tackling poverty and unemployment, I still really battle to get my head around extremes like these – in this case the need to rummage through a dumpsite that shouldn’t be in the middle of a city in the first place, while millions of dollars were spent building a work of art like the Hassan Mosque a few streets away.
A little overwhelmed, I moved on before she noticed that I had noticed her.
I will say from the outset that Grande Mosquée Hassan II is a spectacular landmark, standing boldly on a headland so worshippers can pray over the sea.The ornate embellishments, mosaic work and the sheer magnitude of everything takes your breath away and nearly all the materials come from Morocco: The marble from Agadir, the cedar wood from the forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains and the granite from Tafraoute.The problem I had with this massive work of art was feeling a little bit ripped off as a visitor. Like the entry fee of 120 Dirhams (about $30) for a tour of inside and being charged to use the loo and then being shown to a squat toilet with nowhere to put my camera bag as the floor was wet.
I also couldn’t help noticing the opulence of the entire complex – the mosque is said to have cost about $800 million – and its shimmering newness, in stark contrast to the simplicity of the surrounding neighbourhood.That aside, if you are visiting Casablanca, you can’t not visit the largest mosque in Morocco, which also happens to be the 13th largest mosque in the world.
I was on my way to find the famed Hassan Mosque, the jewel in Casablanca’s crown, when I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. I wasn’t expecting to find churches at all in Morocco, but there it was, neatly hidden behind a whitewashed wall a mere block from the plush Hyatt Regency Hotel in the center of downtown Casablanca.
As I peeked through the doorway at the pretty garden and graves, it was hard not to hum Chris de Burgh’s “In a Country Churchyard”.
Built in 1906 on land owned by the British Crown, St. John’s Anglican church is the oldest church building still in use in Casablanca. Able to seat about 100 people, the church’s website talks of over 200 worshippers spilling out of the doors on some Sundays.
The cemetery predates the church, having been built in 1864, while the pulpit was donated by General George Patton, the WWII general who in 1942 led Allied troops ashore at Safi.
Reading tombstones as I strolled among the graves, I was reminded of how close Morocco is to mainland Europe and how much influence Europe has had on north African port cities like Casablanca and Tangiers.
Although I did research the graveyard afterwards, I never did find out who Rose Emily Stage was or how she came to be laid to rest in Casa at the age of 42.
Casablanca could easily be dubbed City of Laundry. With inner city space scarce in a metropolis that houses in excess of 3.3-million people, every conceivable spot is used to hang wet washing. And I mean everywhere!!
Even without the real street art, it sometimes looks like street art.
(Note the ubiquitous satellite dishes never too far away in the background)
Casablanca on a Saturday night is noisier than I expected. The traffic is nowhere near the manic 24-hour constant whir that you find in Bangkok, but the noise from the street rushes rather than filters into my hotel room in Derb Omar, a busy suburb within walking distance of the old Medina.
I’m so tired though, I don’t care. Getting here has been a long journey – 9 cramped hours in Economy class from Cape Town to Dubai, another 6 hours willing away time at Gate C9 awaiting my 4am connecting flight, then 8½ more cramped hours in the air from Dubai to the town the Portuguese built on the Atlantic coast of Morocco in 1515 and named White House. Being winter it’s dark by 6.30pm. I’m already in bed and switch the TV off knowing I won’t even make 5 minutes before I collapse for some well-deserved sleep.
Casa is colder than I expected and I curse myself for packing mainly summer clothes. What was I thinking? Morocco’s a hot country right? Well yes but not in winter and I would pick the coldest winter in a decade to tour Morocco, wouldn’t I?
My first impressions of the city – the view from my taxi to my hotel – are of washing and satellite dishes absolutely everywhere.
The next morning I hit the streets: The architecture is a combination of decay and charm. A layer of grime and pollution clings to the whitewashed art deco buildings like cheap rouge on a fading starlet, but overlook that and the peeling paint and the arabesque twirls and wrought ironwork that adorn the buildings bear testimony to a grand era and the skilled master craftsmen of years gone by.
British author Tahir Shah, who lives in Casa, once called the city Morocco’s unsung jewel and despite the shaky start of being unable to draw money from the first 7 ATM’s I try (the 8th bank worked!), I fall in love with the streets of this busy portside city that effortlessly blends African and European culture.
My first blog post, I already know as I photograph the sidewalk cafes opening in the pale winter Sunday morning sunlight, will be all about the streets of Casablanca 🙂