We recently spent the better part of a week in Morocco, touring its largest cities and visiting so many historic sites in that beautiful North African country that unfortunately some of them now blend together in my memory.
A few days in Morocco no more qualifies me as an expert than would a few days’ visit to Arkansas qualify a Moroccan visitor as an expert on all things Arky nor American. But while neither should claim enough information from a brief visit to form a critical opinion of the other’s homeland, certainly each is entitled to make some superficial observations.
First, 103 degrees Fahrenheit is hot, whether you’re walking up flights of narrow, winding stairs in Marrakesh or you’re walking to your car in a shopping center parking lot in Jonesboro. Refreshingly, though, I never heard a Moroccan say, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity” as at least five people would have remarked here. Maybe Moroccans don’t use that tired old phrase because 100+ is hot regardless and there’s no use in blaming your discomfort on moisture in the air.
Casablanca wasn’t anything like I thought it might be. My mental image of the ancient city is admittedly shaped to a degree by the classic 1942 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as Rick and Ilsa. There is a Rick’s Café a few blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, though from the outside at least, it bears no resemblance to the fictional movie version.
Casablanca is a lively, bustling city, the largest in Morocco with a population of 3.8 million in the metropolitan area. Casablanca is considered the largest financial center in Africa and the economic and business center of Morocco. You’ll recognize many of the names on the corporate buildings and fine hotels.
Morocco is an exporter of phosphorus, vegetables, citrus fruit and consumer goods. The U.S. imports fertilizers, chemicals, food products and machinery, among other items, from Morocco. We sell computers, vehicles, oil and phones, among other items, to Morocco.
Casablanca’s King Hassan II mosque, named for the father of the ruling King Mohammed VI, is the second-largest functioning mosque in Africa and the seventh-largest in the world. The mosque, with its nearly 700-feet tall minaret, is a magnificent, not to mention easily noticed structure on the Atlantic coast. Only the King Mohammed VI Tower, which is still under construction in Morocco’s capital of Rabat, will be taller.
Casablanca, Rabat, Fes and Marrakesh, the major cities our group visited, all were unique but shared many characteristics — traffic congestion, motorcycle and scooter operators fearlessly zipping in between cars, trucks and buses and many gardens and public green spaces.
It was surprising to first-time visitors that the lush Jardin Majorelle, a 2.2-acre botanical and landscape garden, was bought and restored in the 1980s by fashion designers Yves St.-Laurent and Pierre Berge. The garden also houses the Berber Museum and a memorial to St.-Laurent.
Morocco seemed extremely more modern and frankly, cosmopolitan, than I expected. Certainly, there is poverty, but the Carnegie Middle East Center noted in a lengthy and detailed report released in 2010 that Morocco reduced its poverty rate substantially through a national poverty reduction program. Less than 9% of the population qualified as “poor” at the time of the report, compared with 18.2% 10 years earlier. The literacy rate among adults is estimated to be nearly 80%. School is compulsory from age 6 to 14 for girls and boys. However, the economy in recent years has struggled, thanks in large part to the global COVID-19 pandemic and regional drought.
But as it is for most countries, tourists don’t come to see the skyscrapers and public transit systems. What they want to see is the casbah — the ancient citadel of a North African city and the surrounding area. The old fortified area, high on a hill, has a certain mystique in our western brains. In fact, one of the most memorable movie lines never spoken was in the film Algeria, when Charles Boyer didn’t say to Heddy Lamarr “Come with me to the casbah.”
One also learns that the market in the old city is not the casbah. The old city, with its narrow streets and alleyways, is the medina. The market, where everything from leather goods to live chickens are sold, is called the souk. If you get separated from your group, the best idea, guides joke, is to sit down and cry because you won’t find your way out.
Pro tip: Don’t look very long at the cobras in the square in the medina at Marrakesh, or try to surreptitiously photograph them. The snake charmers will demand payment.
Morocco’s modern infrastructure and economy may be as intriguing as its ancient medinas. One thing, however, was more difficult to understand.
Did a group of young men make an effort to stop our bus as we approached the ferry landing to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to demand money? No, said our excellent and knowledgeable guide, Youssef. Instead, he said, those young men without a passport or a ferry ticket, naively thought they could get to Spain and a better life if they could just somehow board the ferry.
They didn’t board the bus, though one hung onto the back for a while. When the police caught up with them closer to the ferry landing, it seemed to be a no harm, no foul situation. Will they try it again later today, or tomorrow, I wondered?
I also felt mighty fortunate I wasn’t the one hanging onto the back of a bus or trying, in the case of our southern border, to cross a river to seek opportunity.
One last thought: We’re not the only ones in the world who need to figure out how to handle immigration.
Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.