Guest written by Jen Silber
Of all the beautiful and iconic places to go in Morocco, Casablanca isn’t known for being much of a destination. Compared to posh Marrakech it’s slummy; compared to Fes’s labyrinthine medina it’s charmlessly modern. The one compelling reason to visit is the incredible Hassan II mosque, which for all its stunning opulence and intricate old-world craftsmanship was constructed in the late 1980’s and completed in 1993, or for comparison, the same year Jurassic Park was released.
Named for King Hassan II who ruled Morocco from 1929-1999 (70 years!), the mosque is the largest one in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world. Its insanely intricate wood ceiling, hand carved and painted by thousands of Moroccan artisans over five years, covers a retractable roof that weighs 1100 tons and opens in under five minutes, filling the central hall with daylight and allowing worshippers to pray under the stars on a clear night.
We arrived to Casablanca in the morning by train, mostly because we accidentally walked out the wrong door at the airport and were blocked from going back inside by some not-so-congenial looking Moroccan airport cops. Our tour group was scheduled to convene at our hotel that night and kick off 8 days of unadulterated Morocco. That left us a day free to uncover whatever made Casablanca special on our own.
As soon as we stepped out of the hotel, two morocco-red taxis pulled up. They told us the cars can only fit three passengers, so as a group of four we would have to split off into pairs. I immediately assumed this was some sort of scam to turn one fare into two, but it seems that this is a standard for Moroccan taxis across the country. We split up.
Luckily “Hassan II” is a common request in a Casablanca taxi, so not much translation was needed there. We went rattling off through the city streets at breakneck speed, one car behind the other. Only when Michelle and I got out at the mosque entrance a few minutes later, there was no sign of the other taxi. The whole area was fairly deserted except for a police officer toting a comically large rifle, a teen glowering at us from his stationary bicycle, and about 7 stray cats. No one spoke.
We killed time by taking some selfies and pictures of the cats and tried to avoid the thought that Cat and Kristin had been straight up abducted by their cab driver during our first outing. Did they take a roundabout route, or had they been in some sort of accident? Is it possible there’s another Hassan II mosque?? We were supposed to be right behind their car, but we both had gotten distracted doing time-lapse videos from the backseat and forgot to keep an eye on them. More minutes passed. Without working cell phones there was no way to get in touch with them. Under the increasingly hot sun we started getting nervous.
The mosque was massive. The building itself is surrounded by a vast stone courtyard, walled in by other buildings, of which we could only see a part through the gap in the exterior wall where the officer stood. We asked him if there was any other place that a car might have possibly dropped someone off to visit for the day.
The dialog was extremely slow-going for a few reasons. For one, he spoke little English and we spoke nothing useful at all. To add on to that, we were so on guard at this point in the trip that we refused to share any detailed information about our situation, who we were looking for, or what we were doing there. He tried persistently to help us. Eventually he just gestured for us to just walk with him to the other entrances.
We crossed the sprawling square that contained the mosque. Visitors speckled the courtyard, which stretched so widely that the farthest ones away were reduced to indistinct figures in the distance. The mosque buildings cast shadows down on us. It was a longish walk, so while we chatted he managed to coax some more information out of us. The western entrance facing the Atlantic Ocean was more populated, but there was still no sign of Cat and Kristin. The security officer hailed an accomplice and they discussed the situation in French, all while we stood to the side sheepishly. They asked us to describe our friends.
“Uh…they both have light brown hair.”
“One of them was wearing a pink scarf, and the other was wearing a black jacket and black scarf.”
“They look like you.” The first guard inferred.
The other was slightly more direct. “Yankee women? Two Yankee women?”
As they went walking off in search of them, I didn’t have high hopes that they would be able to pick out Cat and Kristin. We weren’t the only tourists there and there were a good amount of Europeans around. I focused on each pair of white women I saw from our vantage point, wondering which one they would end up bringing back. At some point it occurred that they might not come back at all. Still we obeyed their last command and sat tight at the gate.
Soon (although it didn’t feel like it at all) the two officers came barreling across the stone courtyard in a police car. They pulled up next to us and told us to get in. At first we were like “uh, absolutely not.” But ended up realizing we basically had no choice at this point and getting in was probably our best bet. We flew across the courtyard and there, standing in the middle of the churning crowd, was Cat and Kristin. I guess it’s easier to spot a Yankee women in a crowd than I thought.
It took us more than this one adventure to learn it, but Morocco is an intensely hospitable country full of strangers who do recognize you as an out-of-towner - and genuinely want to help you navigate theirs. I’m not saying it’s ever a good idea to let your guard down completely while traveling (I had the appallingly bad henna tattoo to prove it), but I’m a little embarrassed in retrospect of how suspicious we were of anyone offering us free directions or little gifts (boy did I regret shrugging off that mint branch before walking into the unholy stink of Fez’s tannery).
And we did find another good reason to hit up Casablanca – the orange juice and brunch buffet at Rick’s Café is actually the best in the world. Good looking out, Bogie.