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Thursday, 8 May 2008

Casablanca (El Maroc) Morocco-II. Travel destinations

Summer 1967


"Do you think that your businessman friend really means to transport camels by boat to Sahara?"

We were traveling by plane from Las Palmas to Casablanca and my friend Erick asked me this question.
Erick was Swiss, I have long since forgotten how I met him, but he became a friend and after some years he disappeared from my life. A very talkative guy, chain smoker like me, with a liking for free drink, he was a jolly companion. He knew many people in Las Palmas but was averse to working and was not interested in doing anything. We went fishing together, went to the island of Fuerteventura a few times, fishing and staying on the beach for a few days. It was him who knew the Canadian woman who had in 1967 bought a major chunk of beach front land at Jandia Playa (Beach) at a very cheap price and was selling one square meter for BP 1.00 (equivalent to 70 pesetas at that time).

I had sold many parcels of 5000sqm land to my friends and business acquaintances and sold even in Canada where I went in 1970. And now we were traveling together to Casablanca. I had phoned a friend of mine there, an Italian Jew who had lived in Morocco for many years and was in advertising and Insurance business and had very good contacts. I had explained to him our mission and he, without any comment, had promised to do what he could.

We landed in Casablanca late in the evening and there was a chill in the air but the change in the surroundings was remarkable. We took a taxi and went to a small hotel in the center, near the Hotel Atlantique, where I used to stay during my visits there. A friendly and clean place run by an Spanish couple.

Casablanca made famous by the 1942 movie, was not the modern city with new buildings and mosques it is today, it was a chaotic city with buildings in need of repair, its boulevards and streets clogged with traffic and fumes of ancient motor vehicles. The city has always been influenced by French culture and architecture, with a hangover of a decadent Metropolis mixed with the authentic Arab ambiance. The white colonial buildings, impressive iron grilled doors on their facades, all have the unmistable Arab-Adalucian influence. You will hear more French than local language in the shops and streets.

Casa Branca (Casablanca because of its white coloured buildings) as the Portugese called it, was a city in which Berbers had settled as early as 9th Century when the influence of Islam was growing in Spain and in Europe. Berbers were against the Mohamedan religion, but by 14th century the whole region had become a haven for pirates who were attacking the Portugese ships. So in 15th century Portugese assaulted the city and named it Casa Branca and stationed a military garrison to protect their shipping lines. The rest is history, the French colonial rule in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and French influence in architecture, language and customs. The Moors who conquered a large part of Spain have left everlasting historical and cultural monuments in Andalucia and Spanish people like to visit Morocco for its mystic Arab charm and enticing Souks and colourful bazzars, the haggling for trinkets.

The daily life in Casablance was and is even today, in and around its Central Market where you could buy fresh fruit and vegetables, live chickens and goats. The Souks were always full of pedestrians, buying clothes, spices and articles of art, and you would find every imaginable thing there. Streets full of shops dying cotton cloth and leather, its overpowering stench assaulting your senses, the heat, the din of hammering on brass and ironware blasting your ears, shopskeepers shouting and pulling you to have a look at their carpets spread out in front. A total bedlam but so romantic, women in burkas covered from head to foot, young girls with blond hair and short skirts and blouses, men with long jellabas and others in western attire mingling freely in the streets.

The old city of Casablanca was located just off the town square, near the Medina, the main commercial centre, a lybrinth of narrow and dirty streets, near the sea and where many streets meet. During the daytime it was full of people, its bars and cafes full of men drinking mint tea and smoking waterpipe, the hub con constant conversation reaching you as you passed, but in the evenings and specially at night, it was not considered safe to venture there. In hotels, bars and on the streets, you would find prostitutes and their pimps lounging in wait for their trade.
Morocco is El Maghreb and you may not find the salve girls, harems and houris of Arabian Nights there, but there is no derth of their cousins plying their trade at all hours of the day and night.

On the next day I phoned my good jewish friend Hugo and set up an appointment to meet him at a restaurant near the Central Market, where they served delicious lamb cutlets and CussCuss and cold local beer.
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