Thursday, July 15, 2004

Casablanca, Morocco/Fez al-Bali, Fez, Morocco

When you take the train south from Rabat to Casablanca, you soon realize that there are really two Moroccos. One is what you see when you pass through the affluent suburb of Agdal, where you find large stand-alone houses that belong to the Moroccan upper classes whose children will perhaps be able to afford English lessons and attend a premiere college like al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, thus ensuring their family's prosperity is carried over from generation to generation. These familes are also among the most westernized, and it is to them the monarchy caters with a lot of its current social reforms.

Very soon, however, you find yourselves in a different world altogether when you pass through the farmlands along the coast to arrive at the outskirts of the Moroccan economic center of Casablanca, outskirts which are gradually expanded by the thousands of economic migrants who arrive looking for work every year. There they set up shantytowns which consist of countless little hovels made of cloth, sticks, pieces of metal, or whatever else is available, hovels surrounded by by dense thickets of trash and with roofs held on by tires or rocks that stand like tombstones marking the graves of all those dreams which lie buried therein. These shantytowns are technically illegal, but despite the squalor, people fight to retain them, hiding from the authorities until they have lived there two years, at which time their status is regularized. Their fate if they are discovered before two years is to go to government housing. In government housing, conditions are worse.

These shantytowns wear at your spirit as they go on for kilometer after kilometer of the journey into the city, and I admit that it was their sheer hopelessness that for the first time made me understand the power of a figure such as Osama bin Laden, who like the Nazis in Weimar Germany offer to people who have nothing whatsoever a strong message with simple answers and solutions to their subhuman conditions. In this context it is interesting to note how little jihadist ideology has to do with conservatism in Islam. The most conservative area I visited was probably the frontier of the Sahara desert, where at least 80% of the women on the streets wore the full black chador, yet when you read about terrorist activity in Morocco, you read almost exclusively about Tangier and Casablanca, where people sacrifice everything hoping for a ticket to a new life in Europe or a job in the city which has over half the country's industry only to find that dreams and reality simply don't match.

Like all major cities, Casablanca has its upscale neighborhoods; however, the poverty and desperation is felt everywhere. Alone among Moroccan cities, Casablanca can be as dangerous as much of the United States, and there are places even in nicer areas that have actual muggings. After wandering around the city and see the run-down French cathedral you couldn't enter because it was structurally unsound, my friends and I sat in a cafe near the well-touristed city center for awhile to survey the scene. There we found the usual array of beggars who wander with hand outstretched and peddlars trying to sell some minor goods. In addition, however, there were more aggressive types begging strongly for cigarettes or lighters and not wanting no for an answer.

There was en even bigger hassle than that, however. In Morocco, they always bring you a glass of tap water with your tea or coffee. Because my professor had warned against drinking the water anywhere in Casablanca, ours was still sitting there, and men would come up to us, grab the water, and begin drinking it until the waiter would come out and yell at them to leave. If they didn't leave, he would begin beating them with his tray and kicking them in the rear end until they were driven some ways down the street. That happened twice in the couple of hours we were sitting there. I'm not sure which was more significant, the way the situation was apparently customarily handled or the fact people had to steal tap water.

There was plenty of action outside the cafe, as well. Casablanca is a city rife with prostitution, from random street corners to the most expensive hotel bars, and some of them were hanging about, as well. We met a European businessman who was there work with a tour company who told us they came about 5 p.m. by taxi and began looking for customers for the night, trying to catch people's eyes and behaving seductively toward anyone who showed interest. On a good night they could get a meal, some drinks, and a fair amount of cash depending on the level of "work" that they were able to get. One suspects that people did not come here so that their wives and daughters could become prostitutes but when you can't find a job at the massive port of the shipping yards with the rows upon rows of boxcars, you still need to eat, and desperate people do desparate things.

Casablanca may be the most extreme example, but poverty is found throughout Morocco, even in Fez al-Bali, the nation's greatest spiritual and cultural center. Back in my Meknes write-up I talked about Moulay Idris I, the great-grandson of the Prophet Muhammad who had fled to Morocco and begun the first Moroccan dynasty only to be poisoned by Abbasid assassins after a mere two years. With him travelled a servant Rashid, who upon Idris's assassination persuaded the Berbers who had followed him to not choose a successor until the gender of his unborn child was known. When it turned out to be a boy, he was named Idris after his father, and recognized as the one who would rule when he came of age.

This man, Moulay Idris II, made his capital at Fez, the city which he father had begun, and today is buried there in a green-roofed white mausoleum which is one of the holiest sites in North Africa and a place many make pilgrimage every year. In addition, this mausoleum is very close to the Qarawiyin Mosque and University, founded by a Tunisian women later in the 9th century and which has become the second most important center of religious learning in Sunni Islam. When journalists want to find some sort of authoritative mainstream Muslim voice, they go to al-Azhar University in Egypt, but if that didn't exist, they would come right here to the heart of Morocco's Islamic tradition, a place so widely known as a religious center that it attracted holy men from as far away as Senegal, many of whose tombs are revered as holy sites with special pilgrimages of their own. Even Maimonides, who formulated Judaism's 13 Articles of Faith, studied in Fez before making his way to Egypt and Palestine during the 12th century.

Today Fez joins Marrakesh as one of the top two tourist destinations in Morocco on the grounds that wandering its medina is just like going back in time, and indeed with its almost 10,000 narrow, winding lanes and over 300 mosques with minarets reaching toward the sky and issuing the call to prayer in a chorus of piety at the appropriate hours every day, Fez al-Bali is like no place I have ever visited. However, in all honesty, it is difficult to characterize it as a truly medieval sort of place, as the shops have basic metal fronts rather than the carved wooden ones you see in museums, and while there are a sampling of the usual leather shops, booksellers, and the like, you also can't help but notice the giant movie posters on the walls or the tennis shoes jutting out into the street from an overhead rack.

It might be more accurate to say that in Fez al-Bali, you find 21st-century people trying to eke out a decent living with a medieval infrastructure, and this is not always a good thing. One very good way to enjoy the medina is not to enter it, but simply look out over it from a place such as the McDonald's terrace in the Ville Nouvelle or the hills to the north of the city where are found the tombs of the Merenid dynasty which succeeded the Almohads. There you see the full sweep of its many rooftops and monuments, but you also can't help but notice the huge clouds of black smoke which hang perpetually overhead, the product of car and truck fumes, trash fires, or the fires of the potteries off to the west. The health effects of this are obvious, and even though my asthma is hardly worthy of the name, I once spent a few hours laid up with general breathing issues, and the general effect of the smoke did not do wonders for my health in general.

Wandering the streets of the medina, you find all the different areas to which tourist guidebooks refer you, but thankfully the guide for our formal tour was more than willing to speak plainly about what we were really seeing. As we made our way through the streets, one of which was dark and so narrow some people had to move down it sideways, others of which were wide enough for a donkey laden with blue and white sacks or a sweating old man pulling a cart of huge leather bundles to make its way past, we found such places as the vegetable suq, where bananas and other fruits hung in bunches waiting to be purchased for whatever price you bargained for, to the woodcarvers suq where people sat carefully making small wooden decorations or household goods.

Some suqs, however, we as tourists would never use. One of these, marked by small multicolored streams of liquid on the streets outside, was the dyers' suq, where men used the same processes of dying leather as they did 1000 years ago to treat the fabrics for the shops who made jalabas, headscarves, and other clothing. Today, however, a lot of their custom is from people who just want a new look - unable to afford new clothes, they simply take it here to have the color changed. In other suqs, such as the metalworkers, people still follow centuries-old practices, but these have been abandoned for good reason - as the tour guide informed us, all the noise that to us marked this as an interesting a busy place would cost the craftsmen most of their hearing as they lived in it day after day and year after year for their entire lives.

The greatest example of all this however, was the tanneries, considered one of the highlights of the medina and often pictured on postcards for Fez. It is a place clearly ready for sightseers, as they have twigs of spearmint ready to hand you when you arrive, thus giving you something to combat the nauseating smell as you survey the scene from one of the viewing terraces. There you find men in shorts standing in vats of dye, working the cloth into the right color, while others lay them out to dry on surrounding rooftops. All very interesting and quaintly traditional, except that a job here can take as much as 20 years off your life expectancy as you work from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. every day of the week even in freezing cold weather surrounded by dangerous chemicals against which you have no protection whatsoever. The guide, however, ventured that the ones who died young were lucky because otherwise they tended to go blind or become crippled and became a burden to their families as they were unable to do any available work whatsoever; still, he said the men here were grateful for their jobs because it would last at least until their kids were grown, and supporting their family was the main thing.

As mentioned before, Fez today survives off the tourist trade, and it will perhaps come as no surprise that the medina is also the home to some pretty intense hustlers - in my judgement rivalling those Tangier and Tetouan to the north. Often they pose as students since giving charity to students is considered especially virtuous in Moroccan culture. As I suspected in Tangier, they're not generally respected by the merchants with whom they might seem to be in league - two of my friends were basically followed by one into a shop where they were holding out for what they knew was a good price the merchant refused to meet. When the merchant got one of them alone in the back, however, he said he would give them their price if they could return without their tag-along, as he didn't want trouble with the hustlers which would follow not giving a commission. And of course the hustlers also ultimately hurt the tourism upon which the medina today depends - given the choice between an evening trying to lose someone who wanted my money and one just chilling in the Ville Nouvelle, I at least generally preferred the latter.

In response to all this, the government has taken some steps, though often with mixed motives. Casablanca's tourism generally depends on people seeking the nightlife, but during the 1980's they did built the Hassan II Mosque, the world's third-largest place of worship and perhaps the only mosque with a built-in ticket counter in the basement. It can hold 25,000, but when pressed our guide admitted only about 500 people used it each week for Friday prayers - still, if it brings people into the city, it helps the economy, even if it is as much about promoting the monarchy as anything else, including as it does gold lettering giving the generations tracing Hassan II back to the Prophet. It's also probably worth mentioning this mosque was funded largely through public bonds, and so indicates a civic spirit, one also seen in the Marrakesh project to improve the self-esteem of street children, that will could serve the country well.

More importantly for people's immediate needs, a project has begun to replace all the water mains in Fez al-Bali, which was still using the iron pipes built by the Merenids in the 1300's. In the short term this is a serious complication for the place, as the old plumbing basically crumbles as soon as you touch it, and the water in the medina is now infected with so much stuff people who have lived there their whole lives can't even drink it. But when it is all done, it will be a quality of life improvement for a badly over-crowded area that needs all of those it can get.

These are just some of the problems facing modern Morocco. Others include cultural issues, as one need spend only a little time in the country before you hear of violence across lines of both social class and gender, and of course politics - a friend of mine met one girl who went to prison for a few months for saying the government favored the rich too much. The current ruler, King Muhammad VI, is considered a more benevolent monarch than his father was, but Moroccans are still very reluctant to discuss politics, a stark contrast to when I was in Jordan and people often talked about nothing but politics. Even in Ceuta, when I asked a Moroccan if he though Morocco should own it, he just said he didn't know and nervously changed the subject - if my write-ups have been surprisingly free of direct politicla discussion, that is the reason.

At present, I'd say things are improving on the political front with the creation of a new truth commission to investigate past abuses, and on the social and cultural front with the implementation of a new family law the king skillfully managed to get even some conservative support for by basing it on liberal interpretations of Islam rather than secularism. However, the economic problems seem to run deep, and the deep divide between the lives of the rich and poor is a troubling sign for the future of a country that has in my lifetime seen riots over food prices forcibly suppressed by the government. Hopefully all the road construction is a sign the infrastructure is improving which will lead to better things in the future.


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