Passing through Casablanca first, Josh Ferry Woodard journeys on to Morocco’s capital, Rabat, where he gets an eye-opening and “spirited” tour of the ancient Kasbah district…
My Moroccan adventure began in Marrakech. But not in the convoluted back alleys of the Medina where snails are boiled in cauldrons, oranges are pulverised into juice and every man, woman and child is trying to sell you a useless ornate tagine, a fake cashmere turban or a gram of hashish (“I have the best stuff my friend”). No, my journey began somewhere much more sanitised: from the lobby of a five-storey hotel with an outdoor swimming pool.
From there I headed north, with a group of travellers, by minibus to the former French colony of Casablanca, passing horse-drawn caleches, battered Renaults and caravans of camels along the way. It felt like we had stumbled into an Arabic version of the ‘Wacky Races’.
Casablanca is famous for two things: the Humphrey Bogart film and the Hassan II Mosque. And in my opinion both are excellent. We visited Bogart’s gin joint (Rick’s Café), which just isn’t as romantic in colour, and spent some time admiring the mammoth white marble mosque, which glowed ethereally in front of a backdrop of deep-blue sky. I’m far from religious but I couldn’t help but feel humbled in the presence of such an impressive monument.
Then we drove to the capital, Rabat, to meet our local tour guide Fadir. Cloaked in a slack blue and white striped gown he greeted us passionately beside the Kasbah des Oudaias.
“HELL-O, WELCOME. TODAY IS GOOD DAY.”
He had a habit of waving his arms around wildly as he spoke and somehow managed to pronounce each word in his short, sharp sentences with more intensity than the last.
I’d encountered a number of different Moroccan tour guides at this point and was delighted to find that this guy had attitude. He was more interested in the human side of things than the historical dates. He was keen to stress how culturally accepting the Moroccan people are – something that is undoubtedly true – but unlike some of the others he didn’t give off the impression that he was being paid by the tourism board to ram it down my throat.
Rows of glorious blue and white houses lent the Kasbah the imperfect aesthetics of a still life watercolour painting.
The eccentric Fadir led us through the grand sand-coloured stucco-fronted entrance into the Kasbah, which no longer serves as a fortress against foreign invaders or as a sanctuary for marauding pirates but as a neighbourhood for local Rabati families. Rows of glorious blue and white houses lent the Kasbah the imperfect aesthetics of a still life watercolour painting.
“ALL OF KASBAH PAINTED IN BLUE AND WHITE. WHOLE THING. EVERY WALL. WHY? TO KEEP OUT THE MOZZIES.” Fadir chuckled. “THEY HATE COLOURS BLUE AND WHITE!”
This didn’t seem like the real reason for the colour scheme but captivated by Fadir’s passionate presence we strolled through the rustic narrow streets of the Kasbah. We passed beautiful doorways embellished with mosaic, packs of wild cats sleeping on windowsills and attractive murals painted by local artists.
With the exception of a few young boys who managed to sprint down an alleyway giggling, Fadir endeavoured to greet everyone that we saw in the Kasbah with his mouth, hands and heart. The sense of community within the fortress walls was palpable.
We learned that every district in a Moroccan quarter has five things: a public oven for cooking breads and stews, a Koranic school for religious studies, a mosque for prayer, a public fountain for drinking and a hammam public bath for washing and socialising.
…the more conservative female members of Moroccan society still opt to wear the hijab, the groom may have no idea what his wife-to-be actually looks like. And to overcome this obstacle mothers are sometimes enlisted as spies and sent into the public baths to pass judgement.
Salaciously, the hammam also plays an important part in marriage preparation. Because the more conservative female members of Moroccan society still opt to wear the hijab, the groom may have no idea what his wife-to-be actually looks like. And to overcome this obstacle mothers are sometimes enlisted as spies and sent into the public baths to pass judgement. The mother then confers with the father, who passes the message on to the groom. It is said that the future of an engagement can come down to one of two words. A simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. This strange scenario struck me as being like a game of Chinese Whispers mixed with the TV show Dating in the Dark.
Fadir explained how the five neighbourhood staples helped to maintain strong communal ties within ever growing and ever modernising cities. And moments later, when we found ourselves at a cliff-side viewing point, the scope of the capital became apparent – this despite an atmospheric cloudy haze that had descended upon the seafront.
To the north there were casual beachgoers relaxing under red umbrellas, teenagers doing keepy-uppys on the sand and surfers bobbing about on yellow boards in the Atlantic wash. And to the east there was a vast patchwork of white buildings, grey roads and beige stretches of sand. As evidenced by tall needle-like cranes the patchwork was still incomplete. By the water’s edge a wide birth of sand that could loosely be described as a beach was occupied by parked cars. Swimmers watched on whilst Rabat’s ostentatious wealthy thrashed their jet skis about in the shallows of the Bou Regreg estuary.
To the north there were casual beachgoers relaxing under red umbrellas, teenagers doing keepy-uppys on the sand and surfers bobbing about on yellow boards in the Atlantic wash.
We climbed down some stairs towards the bottom of the cliff where Fadir started shouting at daredevils who were diving into the water from rocks. But it wasn’t their health he was worried about; it was their disregard for the rules of Ramadan.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? YOU CANNOT SWIM IN SEA DURING RAMADAN.” Fadir said pointing directly at them, but in English for our sake.
“Why not?” One of the group asked.
“BE-CAUSE SALT,” he said raising his hand to his moustached lips, “SALT IS EATING. NOT ALLOWED FOR MUSLIM PEOPLE DURING RAMADAN.”
Still berating the salty-lip-lickers under his breath, Fadir led us to an artist’s house with a superb selection of kaleidoscopic tiles. The floors, walls and doors were plastered with seaside decorations made from pearlescent shells and richly coloured insets – this was in stark contrast to the whitewashed walls that ran throughout the rest of the Kasbah.
Our next stop was Fadir’s house. It was a cosy abode adorned with stained glass windows, potted plants and an intricate model ship made from wood. A skylight showered the sitting room with natural light.
“THIS HOUSE 300 YEARS, 12 GENERATIONS IN MY FAMILY.” He said proudly, “BUT TODAY, MY HOUSE IS YOUR HOUSE.”
He then started slapping the walls loudly to show us how sturdy his / our house was before lying on his bed, which he described as his “LIVING TOMB”. I was glad to sit down away from the clammy heat of the Kasbah for a little bit but I was swiftly encouraged to get up so we could “RELAX” in the Andalusian Gardens.
Although the thick Rabati air was getting more humid by the minute the luscious gardens were, in fact, relaxing as advertised. Gangs of languid teenagers sat on shaded benches burning incense as musicians strummed simple chords on guitars and banjos – it was a far-cry from the depraved play parks of North London where disaffected youths blare out aggressive UK grime from their phone speakers and leave blim-burns on their trackies.
Gangs of languid teenagers sat on shaded benches burning incense as musicians strummed simple chords on guitars and banjos – it was a far-cry from… North London where disaffected youths blare out aggressive UK grime from their phone speakers…
Fadir felt the teenagers were lazy. But mused that it’s “GOOD TO BE LITTLE BIT CRAZY SOME-TIMES. LET YOUR MIND FLY AWAY WITH THE BIRDS.”
It seems that the humidity (and hunger of Ramadan) was getting to Fadir. On exiting the Kasbah, we crossed a road and he tried to calm the traffic. Despite his best impression of a lollipop man the rush hour Rabatis were not impressed and endeavoured to snake through the gaps as we crossed. Crestfallen, for a moment, Fadir gestured aggressively, pointing an invisible fag at the drivers.
“YOU WANT MY CIGARETTE?” His anger quickly dissipated and he started laughing. “THEY MUST WANT MY CIGARETTES. SOME PEOPLE GET VERY ANGRY DURING RAMADAN. WHEN THE SUN IS DOWN I WILL HAVE FIVE CUPS OF COFFEE!”
A couple of minutes later it sounded as if Fadir had already got his hands on five cups of coffee. We were stood in a grid of white marble columns (ruins of a Mosque) on the Yacoub al-Mansour esplanade and he was running through an exhaustive but impossible to follow history of the place. He looked and started to sound like a mad man – he even attracted the attentions of a couple of Moroccan men in suits, who came over to listen to his rambling monologue with strained faces.
All I managed to take in from the performance was that King Hassan II (the ruler who built the Casablanca Hajj) was buried inside a mausoleum on the square and that in the past a pound of Moroccan sugar was traded for a pound of Italian marble. That’s two points at a pub quiz one day, surely, I thought to myself.
Presumably exhausted from his ramble, Fadir sat down on a wall and gave us license to explore the mausoleum: an opulent ceremonial masterclass of Islamic mosaic and decoration. Red flags attached to golden poles circled a coffin on the lower floor whilst a team of sentinels in white gowns, red capes and blue headdresses stood watch from above. Once again I found myself entranced by Morocco’s outstanding architecture.
Moments later I was spellbound by another feat of Moroccan extravagance. Fadir was engaged in an aggressive confrontation with a stacked policeman about half his age and twice his height. They cut a farcical tableau: slender Fadir in baggy blue and white sticking his finger in the air towards the face of the muscular policeman who was wearing a tight brown t-shirt and was arched over to point his finger back in Fadir’s face.
Fadir was engaged in an aggressive confrontation with a stacked policeman about half his age and twice his height. They cut a farcical tableau…
It turns out Fadir was affronted by the policeman’s request to see his official tour guide identification. But this didn’t become apparent until after Fadir – still shouting and screaming in bellicose Arabic – had been bundled into the minibus and we were driving away.
“I’M FROM RABAT. THREE-HUNDRED YEARS AGO, MY FAMILY LIVE HERE.” Fadir explained as we fled the scene. “HE’S CRAZY THAT MAN. I’M IM-PORTANT MAN!”
Although it was a little sad to see Fadir’s passion transform into aggression before we parted ways it did not alter my opinion of him and certainly didn’t mar my experience. To the contrary, it confirmed my suspicion that there was nobody better to be rocking the Kasbah with in Rabat than Fadir.
Josh was invited on a 10-day Moroccan Explorer Adventure by Topdeck Travel. The trip included half-board hotel accommodation throughout, private transfers from Marrakech to Casablanca, Rabat, Volubilis, Fes, the Atlas Mountains, Merzouga and Dades Gorge plus a night under the stars at a Berber camp in the Sahara Desert. You can read a report of his entire adventure on The Tiny Traveller.