Casablanca is famous for the movie, and most espeically for Rick’s Cafe. I admit it – it was one of the first places I visited when I got there. At the time, I had no idea I would end up getting married in the Sahara… However, there is more to Casa than just Rick’s just as there is more to North Africa and Morocco than the Sahara Desert.
Casablanca is the largest and most important city in Morocco and one of the largest and most important in Africa. The King Hassan II Mosque is the largest mosque in North Africa and the third largest in the world. With a regional population of more than 6.8 million people, there are numerous embassies, consulates, shopping malls, and the widest variety of food choices anywhere in North Africa. Casablanca was a port of the Phoenicians and the Romans and today is home to the Mohammad V International Airport – so if you are flying to or from Morocco – chances are that you will be in Casablanca at some point. While the old medina in Casablanca isn’t as magnificent as that of Fez or Marrakech – it is still a lot more exciting than walking around most other places and you will get a great feel for Morocco as you explore it. The waterfront offers some amazing seafood and grilled meat options. There are fine hotels in Casablanca and then there are really overpriced ones and finally there are run of the mill, share the toilet with the other guests hotels. I’ve stayed in the hostel and stayed in some of the most expensive riads and frankly…the biggest difference was that the wifi was free in the hostel and the people were friendlier. Middle of the road, hundred euro a night is your best bet in Casablanca.
I didn’t realize this until a couple of years after I left Morocco, but I wasn’t the first Damitio to live there. There were Damitio’s brewing beer in Casablanca from the 1930s until 1956 when independence from France was gained. It turns out I wasn’t the first Damitio to live in Hawaii either – we seem to get around.
Here are a few pictures from this magnificent place.
From 2009 to 2013, Morocco was home for me. While I didn’t live in Fez for all of my time in Morocco (only about six months) it was the closest city to the town of Sefrou, where I lived the rest of the time I was there. Fez was where I found expat friends, a job, nightlife, and much more. It’s where my daughter was born. I love Fez. I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still going there on a regular basis – even substituting once in a while as a cultural tour guide in the heart of the medina.
I first came to Fez, Morocco on a 3 a.m. train from Tangier. I’d been in Morocco (and Africa for that matter) for less than 12 hours and the adventures that followed are far too numerous to tell here but they involve a girl, a Berber Nomad marriage in the Sahara, a baby, and the fact that four years later, I still find myself living just 28 km South of Fez with my Moroccan wife and our baby daughter.
The point of all of this, is that Fez is one of the most remarkable places on the planet and if you take a trip into the Arab world- Fez is an astounding starting place that will enchant you, fill your camera’s memory card, and affect you for the rest of your life. Perhaps not in as profound a way as it has me, but the truth is that I’ve never met anyone who has visited Fez with nothing remarkable to share when they went home.
The ancient medina of Fes-el-Bali is the largest car free urban area in the world in addition to being the oldest inhabited medieval Islamic city left in anything like it’s original state. With more than 9,500 narrow streets, alleys, and twisty turny paths, it’s no wonder that people who have lived their whole lives in the medina still sometimes become lost.
As a visitor, you will most likely first come into the medina through the massive maw of Bab Boujaloud where you will be called to dine on meat heavy tajine dishes or huge golden piles of couscous. The touts can be overwhelming at first, but you don’t need to worry because the days of the truly aggressive touts and false guides are now a thing of the past – the tourist police have reined them in.
Before you venture into the medina, you should understand that donkeys and mules have the right of way – they carry crates of coke, baskets of grain, and everything else that needs heavy transport in the medina and they will, run you over. So, pay attention and don’t get distracted by the magnificent architecture, the women scrubbing orange blossoms from the tile doorways, or the heady smell of mint flavored tea. Welcome back to the 7th Century.
While you are in Fez, there are a few things that I recommend you must do. First of all, a tour of the medina with a licensed guide is essential in order to get yourself oriented. A guided tour will bring you to the Karouyine University and the mosque of Moulay Idriss as well as take you down many of the streets and alleyways where some of the most beautiful architecture hides.
Personally, while the fully restored palaces and riads are magnificent, my favorite destination to show visitors is the crumbling Glaoui palace. While not preserved or restored like the Batha Museum or the Karouyine Mosque, or perhaps becuase of it, the Glaoui Palace is overwhelming.Not as stinky or touristic as the famous Fez tanneries and yet there is something truly awe inspiring in this famous, decrepit but still beautiful house.If you read Gavin Maxwell’s Lords of the Atlas, it is even more so.
While you’re in Fez, I think it is essential to stay in a Riad in the Medina. New ones open every day, so there is always a deal happening somewhere. It’s best to check. You can spend anywhere from $20 to $1000 per night – I recommend somewhere in the $50-$100 range for the best value. Make sure that breakfast is included – especially if you pay $1000.
The Nejjarine and Bou Inania Mederasas are beautiful examples of classical Quranic schools. Inside you will be bowled over by the intricate tile (zellij) and woodwork. The artisans of the Fez medina are an astounding living museuem of tha ancient arts and crafts of Morocco. Rather than taking the standard tannery tour most hotels or riads offer – my suggestion is to book an artisanal tour with Artisanal Affairs.
Another destination that isn’t on most itineraries is a trip down Taala K’bira to the donkey parking area next to Palais Jamai. For a more conventional tourist stop, visit Dar Batha (pronounced bat-HA), the home of the Batha Museum. An absolutely gorgeous restored 11th century house of sculpted wood, wrought iron, sculpted plaster and tile work. The gardens offer a respite from the of the medina and inside a treasury of embroidery, carpets, jewelry, pottery, and coins compete with one another to astound you.
A visit to the Fez Medina can be overwhelming and that’s why a rest at Cafe Clock is well worth your time. Grab a date milkshake and a camel burger or sit on the roof with a cafe latte and look out over the 366 minarets of the old medina and listen as the call to prayer warbles at you from every direction. There’s also free wifi and a full cultural program of everything from henna, oud classes, calligraphy courses, Gnawa music on Sundays, and Moroccan cooking courses.
For me, the best times to visit Fez are late Spring and early Summer when the temperatures have climbed above freezing but not yet to the scorching range. Early June also offers the World Festival of Sacred Music in Fez which draws incredible musicians and interesting speakers each year.
Fez is known as the spiritual and cultural capital of Morocco. A visit at any time of the year will show you why. I recommend three to five days, though, like many others, you may find yourself still here three to five years later.
“Trust in Allah, but Always Tie Your Camel” this is the punchline of an ancient Arabian proverb. There is both wisdom and humor in the idiom, but at a more basic level – this is a lesson in survival. These walking ships of the desert provide a lifeline to those who survive in the vast reaches of the Sahara and if they should disappear, life becomes much more difficult or in come cases – impossible.
My wife and I were married in a Berber wedding ceremony in the Moroccan Sahara. That’s us in the picture above.She is Moroccan and so when our wedding party mounted a caravan of camels and set off into the massive dunes surrounding Erg Chabi and Merzougha, it was really just another ordinary day and a different family outing.
Yeah, right. It was magnificent and something that mesmerized every one of us from her mother and sisters at the front of the caravan to our Berber nomad guides who had never seen such an astounding juxtaposition of the traditional ways of the desert with the offbeat ways of a romantic American and his Moroccan mountain family. You see, my wife is not of the desert – she is a shepherd’s daughter from the mountains.
Her mother and sister’s were not pleased when we announced that we would be deviating from the standard traditional mountain wedding celebration and instead taking part in the customs of the Sahara – and yet – as they rode camels for the first time – their smiles and laughter lit the early evening sky even before the last light of the day disappeared. Her mother, the one I thought would have the most trouble with the camels settled onto the oddly shaped saddle and allowed the weight of her sixty years to stabilize her better than any of the rest of us. My mother-in-law was built for camels. The rest of us, not so much.
With everyone mounted, I threw out a quote that none of them recognized “If the camels die, we die.” Peter O’Toole playing T.H. Lawrence in one of the most magnificent movies ever made. He shaped my romantic images of the desert, the quote is attributed to one of Lawrence of Arabia’s guides and since most of our party spoke no English, it was only my bride who understood – “Let’s not think of such things,” she told me with complete seriousness. It was no time for me to explain.
Camels are not comfortable creatures to ride – despite the ease which my mother-in-law seemed to take to it. She had never been on a camel before, but you wouldn’t have known it as she sang and laughed to the purple and scarlet sunset. But a look at my sisters-in-law or the other members of our caravan showed it clearly. The Berber Nomads weren’t on the camels – I asked about it later and one of them Assou, told me “It’s very uncomfortable to ride them. We prefer to walk and let them carry things for us.” Huh, imagine that.
It turns out that Peter O’Toole also struggled with riding camels while filming Lawrence. The story goes that he used washing sponges to make the ride more comfortable. At first there were laughs at his expense but by the end of the film, the Beduins had realized how much more comfortable the sponges made things and they copied him! I don’t know if the Beduins of Jordan use sponges today, but I can definitely tell you that in Morocco they do not.
The magic of the Sahara was more than enough to move beyond the discomfort of the camels though. As darkness fell I looked out to the dunes and became transfixed by the eerie quality of nothingness stretching further than I could imagine. As a sailor, it is the sea that soothes me and brings peace when my soul is tormented and in those moments, I realized the allure of the desert. It is the same. The desert is a place where the world can be forgotten and one can come to terms with one’s true inner self.
There is much more to calling camels ships of the desert than simple transport. The metaphor also paints the image of the desert as a vast sea of sand, constantly shifting, containing treacherous shoals, and vast reaches where men (and women) can perish if the simplest mistakes are made.
“If the camels die, we die.” There was really nothing funny about it. It was true. I understood why the Nomads who spoke a bit of English had not smiled when I said it.
If you’ve come this far, perhaps you’d like to see some not-so-ordinary wedding photos…Enjoy!