Casa Blanca – Going Through Identity Crisis (2006)

Casa Blanca – Going Through Identity Crisis (2006)

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FOR those of us on the wrong side of fifty, the mention of Casablanca brings alive black and white images of that electrifying pair – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, exquisite in their 1940s outfits. But don’t go to Casablanca with stars in your eyes and nostalgia tugging at your heart. Now it is a digital city that has little that is black and white. A sprawling metropolis more European than Madrid or Naples, Casablanca is going through an identity crisis. The picture-book emerald palm trees that line the streets like soldiers in a parade are still there, but so are the art-deco buildings and designer-ware shops, the homes of the ultra rich with their manicured lawns and sparkling swimming pools. Whoever would say Casablanca is in Africa? This seems more like the California coast.

Entirely metropolitan

Well that may be because I had pre-conceived notions of Africa – of ebony-skinned, curly-haired statuesque men and women in chunky bone and horn jewellery and colourful bandanas, souqs heaped high with spices, endless stretches of sand interspersed with lush jungles and untamed rivers and hordes of wildebeest seen only in National Geographic channels etc. Perish the thought. Morocco is hybrid, neither African nor European and yet, entirely metropolitan. The Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Portuguese and finally the French, all of whom have ruled Morocco some time in the past, have surely left their legacy, but Casablanca itself is the most French of all Moroccan cities. On to this delightful mélange is grafted modern Islamic architecture in the form of various palaces and mosques built by their beloved monarch, Hassan II. Our train from Marrakech deposits us at Casa Voyageurs station. The jade minaret of the Hassan II mosque – the mother of all Moroccan sights – looms over the Atlantic coast. We hire a taxi and head for the mosque. Our drive takes us along the beach, which, on this working day morning, is so crowded, despite the relentless African sun! And along the beach are endless swimming pools, all of them choc-a-bloc, presumably with tourists! Vendors are selling baskets heaped with what seems like peanuts. On closer inspection, I find they are boiled clams! Our driver wants to show us the sights of Casablanca, especially the rich people’s villas and mansions. When we ask to be taken to Bogart’s Rick’s Café, he takes us to Rex Café and insists the film was shot only there.

Dramatic construction

The Hassan II mosque, built at a cost of $800 million to commemorate the monarch’s 60th birthday in 1993, is the third largest in the world while its jade minaret, at 210 meters, is the tallest in the world. In true Casablanca style, the minaret adds a touch of drama when at night it sprays laser beams in the direction of Mecca. There is a steep entry fee of 120 dirhams (Rs.600), but who will grudge it when it comes with an English-speaking guide? You’re overawed by the décor and the staggering expanse of the mosque – its esplanades alone can accommodate 80,000 worshippers. Once you cross its steel-girder suspended high-tech gates operated electronically, another 20,000 can be seated inside. I shut my eyes and visualise the esplanade on Id – all those fez-covered heads bowing in unison.

This mosque, which looks more like an ornate mall, was designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau and looks suitably French outside. It’s only when you step inside you realise how typically Moroccan the construction is. Cedar wood from Middle Atlas, marble from Agadir and granite from Tafraoute adorn its floors, walls, arches, columns and ceilings. As many as 6,000 skilled craftsmen worked for years to complete this mosque which is more a statement than a place of worship. There are more tourists than worshippers. The mosque itself stands on an erstwhile slum whose residents are reported to have been evacuated without any compensation. The basement houses two enormous hammams, one Turkish style and the other Moroccan and several fountains for ablutions. Apart from the mosque and the beaches, there’s little else to see in Casablanca.

(Published in The Hindu dated Dec 24, 2006)

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