Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Letter From Casablanca

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by Dr Muzaffar Iqbal

As the train left Marrakech, rolling green hills appeared on both sides of the track and somewhere in the middle of the journey to Casablanca, I had a quick glimpse of the proverbial old man with his staff in the right hand, tending to his flock of sheep, utterly disconnected to the twenty-first century, living in the centuries-old time filled with tranquility and peace we have all lost. But it was a fleeting moment; the train rushed passed the country-side, dotted with little farms.

Then, close to Casablanca, signs of small industries appeared and finally, the train stopped at Dar al-Bayda, “the white house”, as Casablanca is called in Arabic.

I stepped out of the train station into the usual crowd of taxi drivers, one of whom approached me with a big friendly smile and customary Aslamu alaykum.

“Meter,” I said, as he moved out of the taxi stand.

“No, just seventy dirhams,” he said.

I insisted that he should turn on his meter, he haggled for money, reduced it to fifty, but would not turn on the meter. Finally I left.

Just outside the parking area, another taxi stopped and he turned on the meter without asking. The ride to the hotel was 8 dirhams. These small red Suzuki taxis are Moroccan version of our Yellow cabs, but they all operate with working meters, that is, all but those standing by the train station.

Casablanca on that early Saturday afternoon was almost asleep; a town on the coast famous for nothing but its grand mosque which locals say was built with the blood of the neighboring farmers who had to pay taxes for its construction.

In other times, it had seen its glory. On that Saturday afternoon, the streets were not exactly empty but the usual rush of the big cities was nowhere to be seen. After some rest, I strolled through the neighborhood market close to the hotel, encountered an endless number of women beggars, most of them in their thirty’s, some carrying little babies in their laps.

This was a strange experience: In the midst of the market, with is street stalls with cheap, made-in-China goods, a woman would dash forward from amidst the crowd and ask for a dirham or two. Perplexed, one would just wonder what happened to them?

Where did they come from? Do they have husbands, fathers, brothers? How did they end up on the street? But neither the middle-aged shopkeepers, nor the young street hawkers would pay any attention to them as if they did not exist.

I had no memory of such encounters in Casablanca from my previous two visits to Morocco and wandered if something had drastically changed in the intervening four years of perhaps I had missed them because I did not stroll on the streets like this during those visits.

Later that evening, that part of the town where I was staying seemed more like a city in Europe as bars opened up and young men and women started to stroll through the streets in their tight jeans. If one was not conscious of the fact that this is a Muslim country with relatively stable government, one would be misled to believe that this is European city where such public display of bodies was a norm.

The next day, I took a train to Meknes with the intention of going to Maulay Idris, the small hill-side town where Prophet’s grandson is supposed to have been buried.

Moroccan trains are remarkable left-over pieces of World War II vintage but unlike Pakistani trains, they have been well maintained, they are clean, and they run on time. The entire staff of the railway department—from the men and women at the ticket counters to conductors—display professionalism that is absent in Pakistan.

From Meknes, it is a twenty minute, twenty dirham shared taxi ride to Maulay Idris. These Mercedes diesel engine taxis leave from the French Cultural Center in the new city with six passengers, wind their way up the hill and drop passengers in the only bazar of the small city which seems to exist in another time. As the taxi climes up, one can see the white-washed houses clustered in a narrow area, near the top of the hill and hundreds of satellite dishes on roof tops.

Two days in this idyllic town, with its slow pace, fresh fruit market, narrow streets were an amazing experience. Here donkeys are still the main mode of transport of goods. The local population lives in another time and although the town is wired to the internet, it seems to exist in medieval times.

The archeologically important ruins of the Roman city of Walili (Vaulibus) are merely twenty minutes from Maulay Idris. They lie in a large valley, between small hills, reminding visitors of a world power that continues to define many aspects of modernity.

Two days later, a three hour train ride from Meknes brought me Fez—the heart of West Africa’s most “stable” Muslim country, as some analysts think of Morocco. And they may as well be right. Unlike its neighbors, Morocco does seem to have a degree of stability lacking in Tunis, Algeria and Libya, the last-named being in the middle of an uprising which threatens to turn into civil war as I write these words from a riyad in Fez after a day of wandering in its meandering streets.

The fact that a wind of change is blowing through the Arab world is not unknown here in Fez, but no one is glued to their TV sets. The life of the bazar is just as it has been for decades, although at this time of the year, the flow of tourists is just beginning. But when I asked a shopkeeper about his business, he expressed satisfaction. “It is not roaring business, but al-hamdu Lillah, it is going well for this time of the year.”

Morocco is, however, an exception and the winds of change may never reach here. Nevertheless, beyond the meandering streets of Fez, there are new demographic, economic, and political realities which are bound to produce some kind of change in the Arab world, even though no one can guess what would be the shape of the Arab world once the dust settles.

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