Nov 2, 2006


In a university philosophy course I had once read about St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the ancient Church Fathers. This was interesting because Hippo is located in North Africa, what we now consider a primarily Muslim part of the world. Once upon a time the area was under significant Christian influence.

Given the modern day situation between the two faiths, I found the history of this region of the world incredibly fascinating. Way back in 2002 I had bought the Lonely Planet guide for Morocco, but I have not gotten around to travelling until now.

By some stroke of providence, a friend of mine set me up with some friends of his who live and study here, and offered to host me for my time in Casablanca. This has been absolutely fantastic, as they've introduced me to some friends of theirs, some of which are entrepreneurs. The time here has been positively inspiring. Along with being able to enjoy a traditional, home made couscous meal, we were able to chat up about the various tech business opportunities here. People starting to use the internet, DSL seems to be widely available, but there are very few shopping, informational, community, or web 2.0 type sites serving the local market.
There's a bunch of people who are looking to start up businesses here, and it's really interesting to talk to those who already have something going. We've been talking to some guys at various stages of the process, and it's pretty inspiring to hear about the stuff that they've been working on and what drives them. They all have different approaches and reasons for coming here, which is all quite fascinating over lunch or coffee.

Casablanca's a Muslim city for sure. Five times a day the calls to prayer echo through the alleyways from the local mosques. The biggest local attraction is the Mosque Hassan II, the, 3rd largest in the world. On the other hand, it's also quite progressive. Satellite TV is widely available, and with it European channels. If you get a chance to see the tops of the city buildings, they're densely dotted with satellite TV dishes.
Near the center of it though, is an aging whitewashed, deconsecrated French cathedral. There's not much going on, but when we wandered in we were greeted by a little old man on a folding chair in the hallway. He invited us to see the inside, a big empty hall fitted with some flourescent lighting for using the hall to house events. Brilliant colours continued to stream through the dirty stained glass windows. We wandered up the bell tower, a narrow spiraling staircase, slowly crumbling under the age. The pigeons cooed and flapped high above our heads as their droppings crunched beneath our feet and feathers floated in the stale air. On the way to the top, the tower allowed access to the roof of the cathedral, a completely uncovered and unprotected affair where one could easily walk of the edge into the garden far below. Atop the cathedral was what I believe to be the best view of the city, second only potentially to the minaret of the Mosque Hassan II, which is open only to Muslim faithful.
It's a city where a Mercedes might drive along a donkey cart on the same road, or a woman covered in the hajib walking down the street chatting with another dressed in tight jeans and a tight top, with hair and make-up all done up. They say that you'll rarely see couples affectionate in public, but when the residential streets are empty, you may see young couples flirting. On one evening, we walked along the unlit path against the north shore, just west of the Mosque Hassan II. It was mostly deserted, but anyone coming here would notice the few couples, all young, finding a private moment.
It's also a city that's incredibly friendly and welcoming to visitors. While wandering the medina at night, an elderly, chatty gentlemen invited for couscous the next day, ensha'llah (if God wills/allows). Unfortunately we were on our way out to Fez, so we couldn't take him up on his offer. There were plenty of other chatty guys, often named Mohammed, who would use their few words (or more) of English for a little chat. It seems to me that asians are fairly rare here (even though cabbies say that many show up on business). We've definitely had the sense that we were novelties of some sort as the eyes followed us down the street and you could often hear people muttering among themselves, Japonaise? Chinoise? Often braver kids would make their attempts at koniichiwa or arrigato. On the other hand there's a strong entrepreneurial spirit, which has shown up as cabbies making blatant attempts at appropriating fares. On one instance, we stepped into a cab where the driver had not reset the meter, it went from 36 to 44 drms as we took the cab up the street for 10 minutes. He tried to charge us 20 drms, but we left him with 10 as he tried to blackmail us with the price on the meter and cops nearby. We haven't noticed anyone try to outright rob or pickpocket us, but we still kept our hands in our pockets in the busier medina.
Onward to Fez for getting ripped off some more.

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