Make It Morocco!

Crazy me! I was half expecting to see Bogart and Bergman, even Claude Raines or Paul Henreid chatting it up at Rick's Place, waiting to hear Sam play it again.

Instead, when I landed in Casablanca, reality hit, and what I saw was not a quaint studio set but a vast city of 4 million people — a city teaming with life. This is a place where international business goes down, where luxury goods and services flourish, and where top-quality hotels host world-class conventions and congresses.

This is modern Morocco in every sense of the word.

So here I was, finally in Morocco, in Africa, where bazaars burst with all kinds of merchandise in glorious colors — where fragrant souks (markets or commercial quarters) offer tantalizing pastries, olives, spices of all kinds and more. And in such a dynamic metropolis, Casablanca definitely lives up to its press.

Morocco is a little-known kingdom, bridging the gap between Europe and Africa; it's a country where Jews and Muslims have flourished side by side for centuries. This is a nation where you can take in a presentation of a Jewish museum in a Muslim land, and where you can visit the sanctuary where the holy man Oulad Ben Zmirrou — venerated by Muslims, Jews and Christians alike — is buried.

Busy All Day

Morocco is also a country teaming with life morning, noon and night. Merchants who refuse to take "no" for an answer, along with their exotic wares, cart stuff to and fro by hand and the ever-present donkey.

From Casablanca, we were off to Marrakesh, known as "the Pearl of Morocco South," where every building is painted an ochre red. Surrounded by a city wall, Marrakesh was once one of the artistic and cultural centers of the Islamic world. Besides the Palais de la Bahia — a palace surrounded by majestic gardens — and the Museum of Moroccan Arts, a must-see is the Koutoubia mosque, the tallest and by far the most famous landmark there.

Royal History
Then, on to Fez, the first capital of the kingdom. The best way to explore this city is on foot, following the flow of the narrow streets and alleyways to enjoy the ceaseless sounds of voices everywhere.

In contrast with the young mellah (Jewish quarter) of Casablanca, we were soon off to visit that of Fez, which is more than 650 years old. And although more than 98 percent of Moroccans are Muslim, there is also a viable Jewish community. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in Fez, where you can walk through the Jewish quarter and visit its synagogue situated next to the Royal Palace.

Jews took shelter in this palace during the 1912 pogrom. The nearby cemetery contains the tomb of more Jewish saints than any other cemetery in Morocco.

Today, with only 250 Jewish families still living in Fez (population 300,000), their presence is felt, though when I entered the synagogue and kissed the mezuzah, the caretaker smiled and nodded at me in a knowing and caring way.

After two days of exploration, we left for Rabat, known as the "white city" and one of my favorite places this trip.

Rabat — with a population of about 175,000 — is the setting for the Royal Palace of his Majesty Hassan II. It is the seat of government, home to the biggest university in the country, and a kaleidoscope of colorful patios, gardens and seaside beaches.

Five major gates stand at the entrances to Rabat, and as you pass through, each offers a different look at this stunning city. The shopping here is a little quieter, a little less frenetic.

With so many things to see and appreciate — even buy — you can't seem to get enough of the decorated glassware, embroidered fabrics, jewelry, famous carpets, and oh, so much more.

And that is the wonder called Morocco.

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