In Morocco, we went through the Middle Atlas Mountains. A road through the mountains was built by the French. The construction took over a decade and was completed in 1939. Learning this made me think a bit about all the consequences of colonialism.
A few days before this trip snow had unexpectedly fallen there. I did not expect to see skiers and sledders in Morocco, but I did.
Along the way, we saw Berbers. Although many Berbers have now settled in villages and cities, a sizeable number continue a nomadic life of herding sheep and goats, which can graze on communal lands throughout the country. Morocco no longer has much, if any, of a Bedouin population. Bedouins are nomadic, too, but they are traders with, traditionally, camel caravans.
When we got through the mountains to a high, desolate plain, the land looked surprisingly familiar, much like Arizona or Utah. I was not surprised to learn that when all the earth’s land masses formed one continent, Morocco was adjoined to Sonora Mexico and Arizona.
The landscape stopped looking familiar when we got to the Saharan sand dunes. Yes, I rode a camel. Unfortunately, no one mistook me for Omar Sharif or Peter O’Toole, but maybe that would have been different if my eyes were not brown or I had kept my mustache. The sand-colored sand dunes stretching into the offing, however, were not the most memorable sight. As it always is for me in a desert, it is the night sky. As Richard Powers put it in The Gold Bug Variations, “There were so many stars that the sky seemed black gaps pasted over a silver source.”
One of the most memorable manmade sights in Morocco, however, is devoid of the sky. A medina is the walled, old part of a town, and every city we visited had one. Fes had the most remarkable one. It has 9,000 streets, many of which are two to four feet wide, none of which seems to go straight for more than fifty yards. The buildings’ upper stories overhang the street slightly, and the sky was all but gone. This is not merely a tourist attraction. About 120,000 people live there. The streets are so narrow that there weren’t even scooters or bicycles. Goods were moved either in a handcart or by burro or donkey. The animals stop for nothing, and pedestrians have to leap aside. Of course, the medina could seem claustrophobic and frightening, or at least a set for an Indiana Jones movie, but the streets were teeming with life and were not scary. I would have liked to have seen an apartment there. I couldn’t imagine how you could get a stove, refrigerator, or even a big chair through the pathways and upstairs. I did vow, however, that I would never enter this medina without a guide. After only a few hundred yards into this medina, I had no idea how to get out.
The second most impressive manmade sight we saw in Morocco was a mosque.
We saw a lot of mosques in Morocco, or I should say, we saw the exterior of many mosques. We non-Moslems were not allowed to enter them. I found this a bit strange since I remember being in mosques in Turkey on a visit there ten years ago. But non-Moslems can enter only one mosque in Morocco. It is the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.
King Hassan II, father of the present king and regarded by our guide and almost all others as a tyrant, commissioned the mosque. Its construction started in 1986, and the mosque opened in 1993. We were told that the mosque, with a 690-foot minaret, was the third largest in the world after two in Saudi Arabia.
It is spectacularly situated on a promontory on the Atlantic Ocean and is huge—more than two football fields long and one wide. Part of the roof is retractable, but, unfortunately, it was closed on our visit. It is elaborately decorated.
This, of course, cost a lot of money to build. The fundraising caused controversy in Morocco, a country which is not rich. Almost every family “voluntarily” contributed to the construction. The mosque is expensive to maintain, and that is why I could see its interior. Visitors pay an entrance fee, money that is necessary for the mosque’s upkeep. And that is why this is the only Moroccan mosque open to the public. Of course, this is hardly the only place where principles bend under the weight of the desire for money.
The Hassan II mosque, however, is a spectacular building.