Well, not ‘back’ geographically but back in the sense that I’m leaving Morocco for the Spanish island of Las Palmas in the Canaries. In fact, it is 612 Nm in the right direction and will put me in a good position to start taking lumps out of the African coast.
Construction of Casablanca’s new marina is well under way (which was no use to me at all when I tried sailing in there last Sunday) but walking past it now, it’s clear to see that it is going to be a spectacular showcase development demonstrating an economic strength that is undermined by the evidence of abject poverty and unemployment. South of the marina site looms the unimaginably huge Mosque Hassan II. It’s hard to avoid any of the mosques in the area as five times each day the community is called to prayer from the towering minarets in evocatively intense and increasingly urgent fluid Arabic tones but the Hassan mosque is on another scale altogether. The third largest in the world and built relatively recently to celebrate King Hassan’s sixtieth birthday, this unimaginably elaborate building dominates the coastline and stands on reclaimed land over ‘the beach’ before a vast marble courtyard. Built to accommodate 25,000 worshippers, the scale of the building is inspiring but looking more closely, particularly inside, the intricately carved detail throughout from floor to ceiling is magnificent. No less so than, say, St Paul’s Cathedral in London but it’s the vibrant colour, the gold, violet, green and rich red flourishes like jewels liberally set in an expanse of perfectly white marble that make it so striking. I remain impartial, open minded from a religious perspective but it’s hard not to feel a little twinge of sanctity. Then again, in a city of contradictions and in the shadow of this extravagant building, the suburbs of Casablanca are littered with slums, squalor, broken roads, empty shells of abandoned construction projects and street beggars. It’s these areas that fascinate me as the satellite dishes betray a standard of living that is not immediately obvious. The tiny shops, often no more than the size of a doorway, sell all kinds of essentials in what must constitute an economy of sorts although I can’t imagine how. Then, further south through the old walled town (the Medina) and stretching as far as the north wall with a modern, chaotic, dirty and soulless city beyond, it has become a vibrant street market aimed squarely and unashamedly at the flourishing tourist trade. Mercifully, even during the French and Spanish occupation when new cities were built, road systems and modern agricultural methods introduced, the old walled towns of the native Berbers were left intact and for my taste, walking through the old town of Mohammedia, it is the absence of any obvious tourist concessions that I find so fascinating. It’s the fact that this is a functional market (souk) at the hub of a vibrant Muslim community where the donkeys and carts, the charcoal ‘fast food’ stalls of grilled fish, kebabs and tagines, the hypnotic rhythms of the traditional Moroccan Gnaoua music and where the fruit, nuts, dates and spice stalls are absolutely genuine It is here, not Casablanca, that the intoxicating spirit of the Morocco we all imagine is authentically preserved.
So, the dice…
Casablanca is of course synonymous with the 1942 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine. Well, with remarkable foresight, a woman called Kathy has set up Rick’s Café where, in the movie, the immortal lines “Of all the gin joints…”, “Play it again…” and others are delivered. There’s a palpable colonial feel about the place that’s accented with tasteful Art Deco and Moroccan flourishes. The staff are attired appropriately in black waistcoats, black ties and fez’s and a grand piano nestles amongst the tables suggesting that perhaps later that evening, the place will come alive with theatre and role-play. I was there at lunchtime to see if it would be a suitable setting for the next role of the dice that evening. I have to admit that despite the association, I was uncertain about the choice of venue being as how its existence is nothing more than a shameful (albeit clever) marketing gimmick to rape the ‘box-ticking’ tourists of their cash. I thought it might be fun though and would make a great photo so I duly introduced myself to Kathy and asked if, when she had a moment to spare, she could come and have a chat with me at the bar. “I’m unlikely to have a moment to spare” she replied without irony and without even asking who I was or what it was I wanted to talk about. For all she knew I might have been Egon Ronay but after one hour of waiting at the bar nursing a 33 Dirham (about 3.3 Euros) coffee, she still had not graced me with the dubious honour of her company and I wondered if it might have been easier to get an audience with King Mohammed VI. I was enjoying the WW2 music but as I watched the only occupied table (busy!?) send their dessert back to the kitchens untouched, I decided instead to take the dice to the nearby Naval Academy.
Morocco isn’t without its internal political difficulties and besides a residual instability derived from King Hassan’s brutal suppression of dissident behaviour and some resentment of King Mohammed VI’s liberal views, there are issues still with the Spanish Western Sahara territories and with neighbouring Algeria. As such, maybe it was naïve to think that I could just walk up to the gates and expect to be cordially welcomed in. In fact, the language barrier presented the first problem but then, not being able to explain my reason for wanting to make an appointment with a high ranking officer, I shouldn’t have been surprised by their aloof response. I gave up trying in the end and caught the train back to Mohammedia where my Dutch friends Jos and Mayo invited me to dinner on their beautiful 60’ Sparkman and Stephens sloop Jonathan. They had been waiting patiently for news of my next destination and so, to their obvious delight, it seemed only right to offer the task of throwing the dice to them. I had wanted throughout this project to include only local communities, local celebrities, dignitaries, eccentrics and colourful characters in the dice throws and it’s true that I had spent the day unsuccessfully trying to do just that. Jos and Mayo had told me some days ago though of an intriguing story relating to Jonathan’s history that I wanted to include in the book and I was quite keen after five male dominated dice throws to have a woman accept the role (roll… clever eh!?)
Wearing the skipper’s cap inherited with the boat, Mayo Hendriks duly cast the dice across the saloon table and despite statistically (this was the sixth throw and it hasn’t come up yet) fearing a six, the dice landed on a five – Las Palmas in the Canaries. Yet again, the dice had been kind and chosen a good cruising distance although this would be further than any of the previous legs. It would mean nearly a week of sailing but it was back into civilised Europe where I could possibly buy some more books (I’ve run out!), stock up on chandlery and perhaps even find a nice quiet anchorage. A six would have been a shorter distance to Laayoune in Morocco some 536Nm south but it is a bleak place on the edge of the Sahara with very little to accommodate cruising yachtsmen. Also, being just south of the Canaries, it would have denied me the opportunity to visit the islands where I suspect, at least eight of the yachts here in Mohammedia are headed. Race!
W2N Global Ltd.
+44 (0)7967 661157