Journey through Morocco – A tale of four cities

Today is a national day in the Kingdom of Morocco, the ‘Feast of the Throne,’ when Crown Prince Mohammed VI ascended to the throne of the North African country in 1999, succeeding his recently deceased father, Hassan II, and nowhere will be the seafood rich feast be partaken more than Casablanca.

Morocco, with its 3,000 km of Coastline – from the Mediterranean Sea on its north to the Atlantic Ocean to its West – has some of the most abundant fishing waters in the world.

The Maroc, is in fact, the world’s top exporter of that canned staple in supermarkets, sardines.

So that when I landed in Casablanca one mid-afternoon last month, the first stop straight out of the Mohammed V airport was a bistro where we took a snack of a puffy sugary pastry called briwat; and then downed it with a tiny glass of sweet mint tea called atay.

The briwat is a fish and shrimp (with cheese, lemon and, pepper) wrapped in a triangular warqa (what we call a samosa back here, but with fishier smorgasbord).

And if you think the British love their tea, then you need to try the Moroccans, for whom atay – mint Moroccan tea – is everything, the constant companion when meeting friends or relatives.

Marriot in the Ville Nouvelle in the city of Fez. Photo | Pool

With the long, curving spouts – like a swan’s neck – the way Moroccans ‘serve their tea’ is an art, with the mint tea poured from a great height into tiny glasses (not cups), a cuisine culture that surprised many at the residence of Moroccan Ambassador Abderrazak Laasel during a recent Pan-African celebration at the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco.

The fish markets of Casablanca also reflect the rich variety of seafood that can be found in the country – with tuna, turbot, red snappers, conger eels, mackerel, crabs, mollusks, and lobsters all available. There is a famous line in the classic film Casablanca where Bogart says to the love heroine: ‘Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, you walk into mine?’ 

Hard to tell what inspired that line, because we saw no gin joints in Casablanca.

 ‘UNESCO’ Cultural Capital of the World, 2022

Rabat was the next stop, ostensibly for the CCME ‘Rabat International Book Fair,’ at the invite of its Secretary General Dr. Abdellah Boussouf, where 120 writers and academics from all over the country, the continent, and the Maroc diaspora were gathered for the eleven days lit affair.

But it was the Grand Theater of Rabat, King Mohammed VI’s 1,800 interior seating/ 7,000 open-air amphitheater project, to promote the arts and culture in Morocco, that really caught my eye

While outgoing President Uhuru Kenyatta recently opened the renovated Uhuru Gardens as part of his legacy to Kenyans, the King of Morocco has a ‘Sydney Opera House-esque’ cultural structure built as the crown jewel of a 110 ten-hectare mixed usage district. 

The Grand Theater of Rabat will be at the center of malls, residential areas, a new national archive, archeological museum with a business district on the opposite bank of the Sale river.

Its curving design was thought up and created by the iconic Moroccan female architect, Zaha Hadid, who passed on in 2016, gets its muse from Arabic calligraphy and the shape from the river itself.

The Mausoleum of  Alawi Dynasty in Morocco. Photo | Pool

We learned that this was the river that the Moroccan monarch Sayyida al Hurra, the last queen in Islamic nations and also the ‘pirate queen of the Mediterranean’ (the way Jack Sparrow is a Pirate of the Caribbean) conducted her piracy against the West, alongside her ally, Barbarossa of Algiers.

Former Yale lecturer Mokhtar Ghambou tells us something that very few folks know, that Africans once enslaved Europeans: “Sayyida would capture the ships of the Spaniards and Portuguese between 1515 and 1540, and if their ransom wasn’t paid, they’d be enslaved.”

Pre-poetic (in)justice, perhaps?

Fezes in FES – 200 kms East of Rabat

After a short two-hour drive one day in June, we were in Fes, the ‘Athens of Africa.’

We first visited Al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest university on Earth, which is right here in Africa.

Founded in 857 A.D., it beats the next three most ancient universities (all in Europe) centuries down. The University of Bologna in Italia was founded in 1088 A.D. Al-Qarawiyyin beats Oxford University in England, founded in 1167 A.D., by a whopping 310 years, as well as the third runners’ up, the University of Salamanca in Spain, which got its Royal Charter only in 1218 A.D.

We then visited the Chouara Tannery in Fez, also one of the world’s oldest by over a thousand years, and it smelled like something that has been dead and rotting for an entire millennium too.

Within Fes el Bali, the walled medina of the city with its medieval marinid architecture, I bought a fez – those red Maroc hats with tiny tassels, like a graduate – and ate stinky but tasty roadside kebabs, before we left the ‘Old Town,’ via the Dar-al-Makhzan (the royal palace that the King’s family stays in when they come to Fez, also founded 806 years ago by an ancient monarch of Maroc), and onto the very modern Ville Nouvellearea where our Marriot Hotel lay in wait, for us to rest heads weary from taking in the sights from sites a thousand years old.

The ‘Grand Theater of Rabat’ on River Sale. Photo | Pool

Marrakesh is known worldwide as one of the cities where lots of movies are shot.

But it’s to its most famous square, the Jemaa el-Fnaa that we repaired, a very lively place full of acrobats, street musicians, ware hustlers, and souks – those stalls and shops, bizarre bazaar-style, that are a shopper’s delight, and which I’m sure many Kenyans would emerge with Maroc deras, et cetera.

Not being much of a shopper, I headed straight for the center of the square where the snake charmers are. In two minutes flat, I had a small snake slithering across my neck as I took part in the #CobraChallenge – where a cobra coaxed out of a basket struck at my smart-phone, as I knelt, both to take a picture of the beautiful creature, but also in prayers of barely concealed terror.

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