Casablanca, Morocco (Days 1 & 2)

Whew!  After 22 hours of flying and layovers going from Austin, Texas to Atlanta, Georgia to Paris, France, I made it to my destination in Casablanca, Morocco to visit my grad school roommate, Hajar!  Yahoo!  It was so nice to have her there at the airport to greet me… especially since I don’t speak any French (in spite of my study abroad) or Arabic!  It took about 40 minutes to get to her parents’ home from the airport.. there was lots of traffic since I arrived at the end of the day.  I was surprised to see lots of animals pulling carts on the road; that was new to me.  Also there seemed to be people out in any fields we passed that had livestock.

We got to her house and had a WONDERFUL dinner that her mom prepared (I said she needs to have a restaurant!).  We had a beautifully arranged tagine with prunes, almonds and sesame seeds, taktouka (tomato and paprika salad), zaalouk (eggplant), khobz (Moroccan bread), and olives.  Oh.  My.  Gracious.  I was so full, and then for dessert we had our pick from a platter of fresh fruit, including AMAZING oranges from Hajar’s parents’ garden!  It was QUITE the welcome dinner (and makes me want to eat it all over again just writing this)!!

The next morning I got to sleep in for a little bit thankfully.  When I started getting ready for the day, I almost put my deodorant on my toothbrush, and then followed that with trying to put a shoe on the wrong foot.. guess I was slightly jet lagged!  Oh well.  We had pain au chocolat (my favorite) and fresh orange juice for breakfast, and headed out with Hajar’s mom to try to see some of Casablanca.

We got into some interesting traffic on our way to our destination!  I think we made a wrong turn and ended up in a street PACKED with merchants and shoppers!  A guy ended up yelling at people to move out of our way and had to escort our vehicle by foot all the way out of the area!

Outside of the palace in Casablanca

We tried to see the court in the city but there was an event going on there so we weren’t allowed in.  Then we tried to see the outside of the king’s palace in Casablanca, but there were guards who wouldn’t let us by their post since we weren’t with a group.  While we waited for a group that we could enter with, we went to a bookstore across the street and I bought a Cinderella book in Arabic as a gift, and Hajar’s mom bought a Moroccan cookbook for me with all the dishes she’d prepared the night before.  A few minutes later, we caught a group and got to see the gates to the palace.

bread in the oven

From there, we walked to Patisserie Bennis Habous where I got to see Moroccan bread cooking and we bought some Moroccan cookies to have with tea.  Yum!

Moroccan tea and cookies

Something I’ve been surprised to learn so far is that tea is a big part of the culture here.  It’s usually a green tea with mint, poured from a small teapot like in the picture here, into a small glass.  Its poured from a distance to produce foam.

Once we were done with tea, Hajar and I were dropped off at the Hassan II Mosque.  In between prayer times, they allow visitors to buy tickets to tour the mosque.  Wow.  What a beautiful building!  The construction of the building started in 1987 and lasted for six years, involving around 10,000 craftsmen and 2,500 workers.  It’s the second largest mosque in the world, and I can’t believe that construction was completed in such a short time.

Hassan II Mosque, over the ocean
Hassan II Mosque

A neat thing I learned about mosques is that they all have a minaret (tower that allows for the call to prayer), which makes it easy to spot them all over the city.  The minaret of this mosque stands 689 feet tall, and is considered to be the tallest in the world.  It has lasers that point towards Mecca at night.

Prayer hall of the Hassan II Mosque

We bought our tickets downstairs and then moved upstairs to the mosque’s massive prayer hall.  After removing our shoes, we were allowed to enter.  The hall can hold 25,000 worshipers with 5,000 women in the balcony area and 20,000 men on the floor.  The plaza outside can accommodate an additional 80,000.  The mosque was built over the water because of a verse in the Koran that says that’s where God’s throne was built.

Prayer hall of the Hassan II Mosque 

The prayer hall has an incredible roof that can open in three minutes, allowing more air to enter the hall.  Through the middle of the hall, there is a stream of running water, and in the center of the room, there are windows where you can see down into Ablution Hall on the ground of the building, viewing earth.  With these three aspects of the building, one can experience the three elements of earth, air and water.

Retractable ceiling of the Hassan II Mosque

From there, we went downstairs and saw Ablution Hall and its 41 fountains, where people go to wash before prayer.  We also got to see a hamam (bath) in the building that hasn’t yet been used.

Fountains in Ablution Hall
me and Hajar outside of Hassan II Mosque

From there, we grabbed some lunch and got to see Hajar’s sister-in-law for a few minutes before heading back to H’s home to get ready to go to a hamam, or public bath!  Woah.  Sooo I’d been a little nervous about the whole public bath thing.. but we’ll skip those details (for a funny briefing of what it’s like, visit this article).  We started off with a sit in the sauna, then applied a black soap to open up pores.  From there we had a fantastic mini exfoliating massage, at which point I told Hajar I was moving to Morocco.  She quickly translated my words to the ladies working there, and all the sudden they all broke into what sounded like a song (she says it was a chant)!  A little later we spread a mixture of henna and other plants on our skin, and then had mini massages where rhassoul (clay) was applied to our skin to make it soft.  At the end, we used rose water and eucalyptus essence to cool down.  Whew!  They need hamams in the states!

Rick’s Cafe: goat cheese salad with figs
After that, we went to Rick’s Cafe for dinner.  “The one from the movie, Casablanca?!”  Yes and no.  The one in the movie was fictional, but this one was built in 2004 to recreate the experience.  And yes, to my excitement, they have a pianist who plays “As Time Goes By” several times a night!  I had a DELICIOUS goat cheese salad with figs and the grilled swordfish with eggplant compote and pesto.  Yum!!
After dinner we headed home to pack for our upcoming adventure across the country.

Rick’s Cafe
Rick’s Cafe menu for 8/1/2014