Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Rabat, Morocco

From my 4-dollar-a-night hotel room in Rabat, one could see on the right one of the great gates to the Rabat medina (old city), a castle-like structure built during the early modern period and inspiring with little imagination images of merchants and other travellers arriving at a guarded walled city on whatever business brought them here. Stepping out onto the terrace and looking left, you could see the huge Hassan Tower, originally begun by the Sultan Yacoub the Victorious in 1195 and intended to be the minaret of a mosque which was never completed. Looking out of the southernmost two streets of the medina you could see Avenue Hassan II, which forms the border between the medina and the villa nouvelle, and across it huge hotels and flashing neon signs with advertisements appealing to Rabat's rather large population of wealthy elites and travellers.

The street below was busy, as in the narrow lanes of the medina one finds all sorts of merchants selling their wares, from clocks to eggs to silver vessels all interspersed with restaurants and hotels, some of which featured interior courtyards with banana trees. Among the flow of pedestrians in the streets were the usual flow of beggars and in this case a small army of battery vendors calling their prices in French and Arabic and being largely ignored by the non-battery-buying Rabati majority.

I did find the medina dirtier than those in Fez, Tangier, or Jordan and Syria, as the patisseries and fruit stands seemed home to a rather large number of insects wandering freely over the food, but still it was an interesting place to stroll through about 9 a.m. in the morning as shopkeepers turned the poles to crank up tentlike awnings and cats sat around licking themselves clean for a good hard day of being catlike. Hanging a left by the old Jewish Quarter, I eventually came to the carpet suq (market), which in days long past was the slave market for captives brought back by the Sallee Rovers, pirates named for Rabat's sister city of Sale across the river to the north.

This lay in the shadow of the kasbah, built in several stages during the first half of the last millennium as a military outpost for campaigns either against tribes to the south or Christian Spanish to the north. Inside it was cool, and the narrow lanes were all blue up to about three or four feet and white above, lines mainly with houses and a few shops along the main alleys. At one point there was a large viewing platform where lots of people were gathered taking in the view of where the river empties into the Atlantic, with views of Sale on the right, and a lighthouse to the left separated from the mouth of the river by some beach cafes and general waterfront stuff.

The kasbah also had a museum, but it was closed, as was the major archaeological museum in the Ville Nouvelle. In fact, the entire city seemed under renovation, as they were working on Boulevard Muhammad V, the great north-south thoroughfare. This made something of an adventure for the pedestrian going to and from the pigeon-beseiged train station and taking notice of the red-and-gold Parliament building, which paled in comparison to the huge white buildings to the south housing the government ministries and certainly the walled-off royal palace of King Muhammad VI, son of Hassan II son of Muhammad V and a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.

It was still clear that the city was nice, as if you went to a place like the Hassan II tower you found a fountain-filled garden near where two soldiers on horseback holding Moroccan flags guarded the entrance to the mausoleum of the previous two monarchs. (I thought of entering, but they required respectful dress, and after noticing everyone around there was wearing a suit, decided I might not qualify after all.) The construction in Rabat is really a good sign, as you see development all over the place, perhaps not countering the country's deeper economic problems, but interesting nonetheless, as Morocco generally gets poor ratings for the quality of its infrastructure. Still, on both intercity trips I've seen road work, with the train ride back featuring the contruction of a completely new highway - I didn't catch where it was going, but as the two men in my train compartment spoke of it approvingly in French-influenced Moroccan dialect I did hear that it was expected to be finished in about two years.

My favorite spot in Rabat, though, it probably south of the walls of the Ville Nouvelle, where John Kennedy Avenue comes up outside of town to a huge traffic circle from which a single lonely lane leads to a fortress-like structure amidst the open countryside. This is the Chellah, which houses both the tombs for some sultans of the late medieval Merenid dynasty and the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Sala Colonia. There I wandered around for a couple of hours, through the Roman ruins and the mosque and madrasa destroyed by an earthquake around 250 years ago, and peered into a small walled pool which on the bottom featured lots of change and not a few pieces of egg peel, presumably confirming the story that women came here to offer eggs to the eels when they wanted to conceive children with the aid of the baraka of the wali buried nearby.

Because it was hot and I was tired, I found a suitable place to sit, and after a few moments realized I was in the graveyard of the mujahadeen who had died fighting the Christians of Spain centuries ago in the wars which left Spain Christian and Morocco Muslim. This seemed really odd, especially considered the ways in which today "mujahadeen" has become a somewhat loaded term. The graves were really not that impressive - the long stones lain in rectangles around the spot of burial were all cracked and in some cases actually missing, and between them grew little besides the occasional weed. Still, it gives one pause to reflect that despite all the strife of the time they lived, today I was still as a Christian able to relax among them, chatting with a Muslim couple from the United States, an area opened to European (and Islamic) influence by the Spanish. In fact, this whole city was in part the product of Christian-Muslim conflict, from its development as a haven for Muslim and Jewish refugees from Spain to the role in played as a base for the Sallee Rovers and the wars against Europe, yet today it is a very open city with a major street named after an American President and a deep French imprint left over from the colonial period but still discernably present. And that perhaps gives hope for the present, when the conflict between those two faiths isn't nearly as bad, and in which the ruined graves of warriors amidst the main attraction of a religious building and learning institution remind us of what people the world over truly value most


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