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Casablanca, Morocco

The spring day in Morocco began under a light rain and grey skies. On the streets of Casablanca the men in the coffee shops had the zippers of their leather and running jackets zipped up tight, the hoods of djebellahs pulled up and cinched. As they sip their morning "Moroccan whiskey" (heavily milked mint tea) at outdoor cafes the rain is kept away by quickly extended awnings.

On first blush it's hardly the somber-sunny, desert-like mood evoked by Paul Bowles' The Sheltering Sky or even its famous eponymous Hollywood take (Trivia question of the day: Who was initially contracted to play Humphrey Bogard's Rick in Casablanca?) On the fringes of its bidonvilles - the slums that circle the city - Casablanca this morning feels more like any grey urban city on the edge of a big sea than anything even remotely exotic. Founded during medieval times, it was initially a prosperous town called Anfa. The Portuguese destroyed it in 1468, rebuilt it 1515 and it was leveled again in 1755 by an earthquake. Occupied by the French in 1907, it grew into the big, grey seaport it is today.

I duck inside the compact Central Market for a coffee and to hide from the cool rain. The scene around its interior fish market cures me of any rainy day blues. Tall shelves are filled with fresh Atlantic salmon and squid, octopus and a variety of rays. Small smelts, just an inch or two long, are neatly arranged in rows in a shallow wooden crate, a pattern Martha Stewart would admire. A handsome old woman has laid her morning's catch fish out on the crushed ice as if they were still swimming. Colanders of colorful shrimps are being peeled un-eyed as the peelers bark out information for customers about the day's wares. A few fishermen themselves stand among the dozens of booths, helping to unpack crates delivered fresh from the sea, fighting off the fatigue of a long night of fishing.

Just next to the fish market, its booths built of white and blue ceramic tiles and hosed down constantly, a lonely butcher stands vigil over a freezer case starring just four sizable cow tongues, each the size of my forearm. Next to him a man sells olives, dates, almonds and colorful spices -- saffron, pepper, cumin and pimento -- straight from burlap sacks. In the narrow corridors trussed chickens, heads still on, hang next to skillfully skinned goats, their tails sticking erectly into the air. "Like they are in real life," says the shop's patron, "with heads and tails and everything. Why is that your culture insists on lopping off all the interesting parts before they are sold?" Good question, no good answer.

The rain has stopped and I'm back on the streets, now crowded, the last of the morning's humidity steaming off the city's cement. The streets are crowded in part because the unemployment rate hovers around 50 percent. There's nowhere else to go but the street. "Those are the real figures," says the man who makes me a second coffee. "Ignore what the government says." The preponderance is men and the coffee shops (interdit to all women) are packed.

There are women on the streets of course, some in burkas and high heels, most sans burkas. Traditional Moroccan djebellahs and burnouses exist side by side with beach-goers in flip-flops and board shorts. There are fewer veils than in most Muslim cities, and more mini skirts highlighted by cum-fuck-me pumps. Downtown Casablanca resembles less a Muslim capital than a southern Mediterranean one.

As the palm tree-lined main street shakes out the last of the rain, sidewalk vendors begin to drag out their tables. The economy here, like all of Morocco, is tourism and, well, tourism. And it's depressed thanks to the tanking dollar. Agriculture is the country's second biggest business, with 40 percent of the country depending on growing, but as we've seen throughout coastal Africa it's a hard-hit business thanks to less rain and more sand.
CASABLANCA PHOTO GALLERY    1   2   3   4   5  

photographs: Fiona Stewart


I spend the afternoon dropping in and out of shops, talking with shopkeepers along the main, palm tree lined avenues beneath a hot sun. Once they figure out I'm American there is only one subject they want to talk about. As a traveler, I've come to expect the question during my recent years on the global road: How can you guys live with such an incompetent president? But things have changed, that's not what they want to know now.

Instead, to a one they ask, What do you think about Hillary?

Before I can answer, they jump in, saying they still hope she manages to find a way to the presidency. Which shocks me, since these are all men, part of a super-macho society, which is 99.99 percent Muslim and governed by a constitutional monarchy. Morocco is led by narcissistic leaders who share the name Hassan (the mosque in town honoring Hassan II, who died in 1999, required 6,000 Moroccan craftsmen working 24/7 for five years and cost $800 million) who have never made any room in coffee houses for women, much less its government.

They prefer Hillary, they say, because her husband is a known quantity. "We really liked Bill Clinton," says an English-speaking antique dealer inside the Old Medina sitting on a plastic chair outside his shop. "With him, the economy was good and there was mostly peace. I remember when Hassan II died, Bill Clinton came to the funeral and afterwards he walked along the streets with the people. He must have ditched his bodyguards or something. We admired him for that!"

"He was smart," tapping his forehead with his finger, "not like the current president. Maybe if she is elected, it will be him who really runs the government. What do you think?"

That is their theory. If Hillary is elected, clearly it is Bill who will be running the show.

He offers me a mint tea as a trio of black-as-coal 20-somethings saunters past down the narrow souk alleyway. "Mafia," he whispers. "They come from Benin, Mali, Burkina-Fasi and their only business is black market money, drugs. You know the type." One wears a shiny black suit and a Bluetooth earpiece; the other wears a Puma basketball shirt, long jean shorts and baseball cap turned to the side, a heavy gold chain around his neck. "Watch out for them, they are trouble," he warns. "Gangs have officially come to Morocco."

Later in the afternoon at a bazaar called Art Wonders of Morocco, Mohammed and I speak in French about the state of the economy, American politics and war.

"War is very, very bad. For the Iraqis. For the Americans. Even for us here in North Africa. For the entire world."

"Primarily, look what it's doing to the world economy. America is suffering. Turning crops into petrol, which is a dead end. Taking crops out of poor country's mouths means all food prices around the world are going up."

"So, yes, we are all for Hillary."

What about the fact that she's a woman? Can he imagine a day when a woman could lead Morocco?

"No, but it's different here. Hassan II died just nine years ago. When he was around, it was a different place, a tougher place. If you robbed and were caught, you were killed. No questions asked. Now, under his son, there is slightly more liberty, a few more freedoms. But, in my opinion, we are not ready for too many liberties, too many freedoms. It's not in our tradition and I'm afraid the country might short circuit. People could go far overboard if they had all the freedoms you have in America."

"We have to go slowly, one step at a time. That's how we should gain our liberties."

"Other than Bill Clinton, you know who I like from America? Robert DeNiro. Do you think he could run for president?"

I ask what he thinks of John McCain. "He's just more Bush, right?"

And what about Barack Obama, I wonder. After all, he is a fellow person of color, with a Muslim-sounding name. "We don't know much about him," admits Mohammed.

He doesn't seem curious about Obama at all, despite that he's the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee. The headlines in this part of the world the past six months have apparently kept up a steady drum beat of news about Hillary and barely explained Obama.

"We are waiting for your elections to be over. The economy here is awful. It's gotten better in the past few years, but is now diving again. Jobs are hard to find. Unemployment is huge. Despair is coming. We need America to get on the right road again. If America is hurting, it hurts us too."

I complain that it's my tax dollars paying for the war, which we agree is money poorly spent.

"Here it's the same. My tax dollars, our government dollars, go to support the Palestinians and other groups that I don't necessarily agree with. But what can I do? It's not like I can change my vote!"   home |  blog |  dispatches |  oceans8 |  store |  press
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