The Hidden Treasures of Casablanca

Most Casaouwis are not particularly excited about their own city.  I am not about to tell you that it’s a wonderful, or beautiful, or clean place to live, but Casablanca does have its own charms.  Here are some spots I like in the city:
The Lighthouse
For some reason, this has not at all been exploited as a tourist destination, though it’s my favorite place to visit.  To get to the top of the lighthouse, you have to climb up the winding staircase, guided by a man who lives next door (he does ask for money, but it’s negotiable.)  At the top, you can look out over the entire city, and across the vast ocean.  You also get an up-close look at the light at the top, which I found interesting.  What could be better than a beautiful view AND a workout?
Sky 28
This is a restaurant/bar that is on the 28th floor of the Twin Center.  It offers a beautiful view from the other side of the city from the lighthouse.  You can take the elevator up (no workout for this one) and have drinks while you watch the sunset. The best views can be found in the handicap bathroom, so make sure you take your camera when you have to use the toilet.

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Derb Omar
This is a market where goods are sold in bulk.  They sell to restaurants and shops, but you can also walk around and buy from the market.  It’s in a particularly car-filled and polluted area, but once you go into the covered market areas, it is a sea of treasures.  I like to shop for little household items and beauty products.  Once, I found a french-fry cutting machine, and now I can slice perfect fries in just a few minutes.
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A few of Derb Omar’s treasures: nail polish, lotion, peanuts, spoons, and wall decorations

My favorite part of the market is the dried fruit and nut section.  I always stock up on peanuts, crystallized ginger, dried pineapple, and dates.  And the best part is that you can sample each on before you buy them!
Maarif
This is the city’s main shopping neighborhood, and is primarily known for wide avenues lined with upscale stores like Zara, Mango, and Massimo Dutti.  But if you venture into the residential neighborhood, you’ll find a plethora of smaller hole-in-the-wall stores selling last season’s fashions (mixed in with some imitations).  And if you’re not into clothes, you might want to stop by one of many vegetable stands, bakeries, bookstores, or underwear shops.  I walk through the busiest area of Maarif on my way home from work, which is perfect for picking up fresh groceries on the way.  And yes, I have made a purchase from the Underwear Man.
The Ocean
Casablanca’s corniche is one of the best known tourist destinations, along with the mosque Hassan II and Morocco Mall.  I think it’s worth mentioning anyway because it is such a nice part of the city.  The path stretches more that 4km, and is perfect for running or walking.
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All Pastry Shops
Casablanca certainly is not lacking in bakeries.  There are some nice ones with outdoor seating where you can enjoy your pain au chocolat in the sun, though the coffee and tea is always very expensive in these cafés.  My favorite thing to do is to buy a pastry at one of the four shops just on my street, and then bring it home to warm up in the oven and enjoy with a cup of coffee on the balcony.  In other words, the very best spot in Casablanca might just be my balcony.
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Imagine that there is a chocolate fondant on the table.  What could be better?!

Things I Wish more Moroccans Knew about Morocco

A while ago, I wrote a list of things I wish more Americans knew about Morocco.  Here’s the complementary post; what I wish more Moroccans knew about their own country.

  1. There are a lot of foreigners.  There are not just French expats, but Americans, Africans, Asians, and other Europeans.  And not all of them are rich, contrary to popular opinion.
  2. It is incredibly difficult for those foreigners to get visas.  My explanations of what I have to go through to renew my residency are met by surprised looks from Moroccans, and knowing nods from other foreigners.  I heard that the majority of French expats in Morocco just don’t bother getting visas, and leave every few months in order to continue living on a tourist visa.
  3. There is a big Christian presence in Morocco.  There are churches in every major city, and there are several different denominations represented.

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    Seats for the wedding guests at our church

  4. It is much easier and much more useful to learn French than to learn Arabic.  I came to Morocco with the intention of learning more Arabic, but ended up learning French out of necessity.  Speaking French has allowed me to make friends, communicate with others, and be a better English teacher.
  5. It is not dangerous to walk by yourself in Casablanca.  I walk to work every day, and have never felt unsafe (although I do often get annoyed by the traffic and by men).  I am occasionally told that I should not walk, but I think it’s actually safer than putting my life in the hands of an impatient taxi driver.

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    This Meknes taximan was ready to pick us up, but we wanted to walk.

  6. There are a lot of wonderful things that Morocco has that the United States does NOT have.  For example, vacation homes for big companies, maternity leave and generous vacation day policies,  cheap organic produce, and cleaning ladies who will clean your apartment once a week for a small price.  Which explains my first point, that there are a lot of foreigners.

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    Also, beautiful weather

Wedding Bloopers

Thankfully our photographers took hundreds of pictures, because some ended up a little silly.  Here are the highlights.

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How many people does it take to pick up a pair of newlyweds?

When I asked the photographer if he could take a picture of our rings, this classic pose is what he came up with:

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Please notice how the rings are not visible.

After all of those photos, I started to get tired.  My sister helped me out by taking this fish-face photo, which allowed me to stretch my smiling muscles.  But it didn’t give me quite enough energy to jump for the next photo!

My husband must have stronger face muscles than I do, but his feet were really starting to hurt.  Luckily, the fact of taking his shoes off provided new photo opportunities.

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This photo is actually a very accurate representation of our relationship.

After the embassy wedding, we took some photos by the mausoleum in Rabat.  The unfinished pillars seem to be made for wedding photos.

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My sister had clearly been practicing for this.  And on the left is my Mom.  Isn’t she pretty?  She’s smart and funny too.

But the main reason why are photos came out so well is that we practiced a lot beforehand, anywhere we could.

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Are we going to kiss, or are we pigeons?

 

The Wedding Post

After all those posts about my fiancé and about wedding preparations, it looks like I completely abandoned my blog during the actual wedding.  Better late than never!

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“Kiss me on the cheek so you don’t mess up my lipstick!”

We got legally married first, at the Central African Embassy.  This step was very informative because Chancellor read all of the laws concerning marriage in the Central African Republic at the beginning of the ceremony.  We learned that if my husband and I want to move, he must choose the house.  If he is unable choose the house, I may do so.  If neither of us can, our children may choose.  And if even the children are unable to choose a house, the dog may be permitted to do so.  Luckily, the “livret de famille” includes space for the names of ten children, so probably at least one of our ten future kids will be decisive enough to choose where we should live.

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This is a like game of tug-of-war, men vs. women.

The next day, we got married in our church.

Prayer

For this part, we wore traditional wedding clothes.  The pastor who had first introduced us was the one who married us, and she gave a wonderful sermon about how our relationship had grown.  Afterward, we went home to change into our party outfits for the soirée.

We vowed to always match our outfits, among other things.

We then rode our motorcycle off into the night, finding ourselves in sunny Oualidia the next day (just kidding, we took the bus).

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“This photo was supposed to be of me!”

The benefit of writing this post almost a year late is that I can confirm that we still love each other!  And if you could see what I was wearing in the above photo, it did in fact match what my husband was wearing.  We were serious about those vows.

A Ten-Year Break from Visa Fiascos

After two months of being an illegal resident in Morocco, I finally renewed my “carte de séjour” last Friday.  I managed to get a ten-year visa this time, which gives me an odd sense of peace despite the fact that I don’t plan to stay for more than another six months.  If nothing else, I’m allowed to live in Morocco at any point during the next ten years.  Here’s a taste of what I had to go through to get there.

Last year, I had a lot of trouble turning my documents in on time because my employer took two months to give me my work attestation (someone in Rabat had to sign it first, which apparently is quite complicated).  This year, I did my best to get everything together on time, and headed to the prefecture a full two weeks before my visa would expire.

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The spiral staircase of Moroccan bureaucracy

Unfortunately, I chose a day when the lady who puts together the visa applications was in a bad mood.  She asked me to provide a document which foreigners are required to get only once, and which I had turned in my first year, and so no longer needed.  I pointed that out, saying that the previous year it had also been she, the same Visa Lady, who did not ask for that document.  Why did I suddenly need it the third time around?  No one knows.

That precious document took two months to acquire.  I had to search for all sorts of documents I had never known existed (for example, the history of my health insurance payments, which was blank because I hadn’t been paying health insurance).  I was also slowed down by a problem with the electricity company, who asked for my housing contract in order to renew my account for paying electricity bills.  They promptly lost the housing contract, and then turned off our water and electricity for the weekend since the account could not be renewed without said contract.  I had to shower with a bucket.

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All doors lead to nowhere.

When I finally got another housing contract and the other document I needed, I was so late in turning in my papers that I had to run yet another obstacle course around Casablanca in order to be pardoned for my tardiness.  First, I had to show up to the prefecture at 8:30am on a specific day.  I waited in a long line of other tardy foreigners until my name was called, and I signed a document.  I was then told to go to the Tribunal at 11:30am, so I canceled my classes for the afternoon to make time.  It took 40 minutes to get to the Tribunal, where I waited outside in the rain (Morocco had experienced a drought up until that very day) with the rest of my tardy foreigner friends from that morning.  After one hour, a man came out and called our names again.  At the sound of my name (or the Moroccan version of my name, Elanoor Yassir), we were given the thumbs up.  Really, the man gave us a thumbs up, and that was it.  He didn’t speak much of any French, but what he was trying to communicate was that we could leave and go turn in our papers at the prefecture.  I am still asking myself why I didn’t just send someone else to pretend to be me.

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This is another police building, by the sea.

Fortunately, the Visa Lady was in an excellent mood this time around.  When I went to the prefecture the next day, she called me up to the front of the line.  As I handed her my papers, she noticed that I have a Moroccan wedding ring.

“Oh, you got married in Morocco!” She said, and I nodded.  “So I think you married a Moroccan?” She asked.  “Madame, are you pregnant?”

I smiled at her.  “Let’s renew my residency visa!” I said.  And she did!  Maybe in ten years I’ll get another chance to chat with her.

Why We Do Not Want to Stay in Morocco

When I first came to Morocco nearly four years ago, it was love at first sight.  The weather was perfect, the people were friendly, the food was delicious, and every day was an adventure.

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Beautiful rock formations in Oualidia

I thought my husband and I might stay long-term, to keep taking advantage of Morocco’s beautiful diversity of cultures.  I was so much more in love with Morocco than any of my colleagues, most of which I thought would leave after a year or two.  But as it turns out, my close friends from my first year will probably stay significantly longer than I will.  Here’s why:

  • There are not many job options outside teaching, which is not my career.  I have also worked part-time in two NGOs, but both were pretty shockingly disorganized.  I don’t think I ever attended a meeting that didn’t start at least an hour late.
  • Getting a visa is a yearly challenge, especially for Africans.  My first year, my employer did everything for me, so I never even knew how difficult it was.  These past two years, I’ve had quite a bit of trouble renewing my visa due to unhelpfulness both from my new employer and from the staff at the prefecture.  And my husband has been working for almost three years on a student visa because his employer doesn’t want to pay the fees for a foreigner’s contract.
  • It’s just really hard to walk down the street.  I’m lucky enough to be able to walk to work, but feel so much less lucky when men comment on my clothes or appearance, or especially when they try to follow me.  It’s better when I walk with my husband, except on the occasions when people (men) yell racial slurs at us.  And then there are the broken sidewalks….
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A surprisingly well-organized slum

  • The rising culture of materialism is exhausting.  Like any fast-developing country, Morocco has become more and more focused on material wealth.  The thing to do on the weekends is to go shopping, and having a car has become a status symbol.  I struggle to explain to my students that I don’t have a car because I like to walk, not because I can’t afford one, that I don’t eat at the most expensive restaurants because I actually like to cook, and that I want to become a social worker because I genuinely find that profession fascinating, not because I got rejected from programs in technology or finance.  My idea of a good career is one that I find rewarding, not necessarily one that pays a lot of money.
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This guy probably gets his hair done in a salon every week.

There are things I love about Morocco too; the community I’ve found here, the opportunities I’ve had to meet new people and learn new languages, and the chance to experience another way of life.  The ocean in Casablanca is beautiful, the vegetables are always fresh, and my husband and I have wonderful friends.  But there’s a time for everything, and I really feel like it’s time to find a place to live with more trees than cars, even if it is somewhere with cold winters and no pomegranates.

 

Back to Blogging

After almost a year, I have decided to continue posting on my blog.  Here is a short story I wrote.  If you read it, please tell me if it makes sense!

 

She could feel her stomach rumbling as she smiled at her patient, a young woman with a pretty face, smooth black hair, and carefully applied wings of black eyeliner extending her eyes. A lovely face, but not meant for smiling. Her unfortunately crooked front teeth distracted anyone who looked at her as soon as she opened her mouth.

“It’s quite a simple procedure,” Amina assured her. “We’ll just straighten those two teeth and give you a quick whitening treatment.” Amina smiled, showing her own perfectly groomed teeth, and held up a pair of invisible braces. Her stomach gave a rumble of agreement.

Ramadan was Amina’s least favorite month. The month in the Muslim calendar when eating and drinking during the daytime were forbidden had never appealed to her. Her mother, a Hungarian, had always insisted that Amina and her brother have the choice not to participate in the tradition. Growing up in Syria made this challenging, but Amina’s father, although a practicing Muslim himself, was careful to let his wife bring her own culture and traditions to the household. Now that Amina was grown, she tried to do the same. Her husband, born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco, where they now lived, taught his culture to their two children, and she taught her own mix of Hungarian and Syrian traditions, underlined by a freedom to choose. And her choice was that she couldn’t function all day at the dental clinic without at least a morning cup of coffee.

The clinic was quiet in the afternoon; most Moroccans preferred to stay home and rest or prepare the meal for breaking the fast. Amina sat at her desk and gazed out the window at the cars speeding by on street below. Didn’t Casablanca ever get tired of moving so quickly? She thought, watching a motorcycle dash around several cars, one of which was puffing out little gray clouds of exhaust. The cars bunched up at the stoplight, then spread out again, only to bunch up all over again a minute later. Just watching it was exhausting. Amina’s thoughts wandered to the house she and her husband were having built outside of the city, in a new subdivision known for its beautiful wooded areas. It should have been ready months ago, but the completion date had been postponed several times. A car on the street below let out a long honk, and a car alarm somewhere nearby started shrieking. Amina let out a sigh. Casablanca could never just relax.

That evening, as Amina was preparing the meal for her husband to break the fast, the street noises outside invaded her thoughts more than usual. There must have been a local football match; young men were streaming down the street, all dressed in red, chanting and shouting. Amina dreaded these nights, when the football fans would come back from the stadium, yelling and chanting either the victory or defeat, both equally emotional. She wondered if they even really cared about the results, or if the fans just had some sort of desire to let out all of their emotions at once and used the football results as an excuse. Amina was always woken up by them, and her five-year-old son often woke up crying if the fans got too loud.   She prayed every day that he would not grow up to be a fan of football.

Amina put the last touches on the meal, setting everything on the table. Even though she hadn’t been fasting, she hadn’t eaten anything all day at work, not wanting her patients to know that she wasn’t a practicing Muslim. This is what it must have been like for my mother, she pondered, thinking about her Hungarian mother falling in love with her Syrian father and going to live with him in Damascus. Always a little bit of an outsider. She plucked a juicy date off the platter she had just set on the table and put it in her mouth, savoring the sweet fruit.

After dinner with her family, Amina and her husband and children headed to bed, stomachs finally full. “I can’t wait to move into our new house when it’s ready,” Amina told her husband when they were sitting in the bed in the tiny master bedroom.

“I’m tired of living in this city,” she added.

“I’m sure the house will be ready soon,” he replied. “And then we won’t bump into our furniture all the time!” He laughed, reaching over Amina to put his glasses down on their one bedside table; his side of the bed was too close to the wall to fit another one. Amina closed her eyes, picturing a house in the forest, chirping birds dancing above the trees.

***

Amina woke abruptly to the sound of a series of loud bangs and her son crying. Has a war started in Morocco? Amina wondered as the sounds of explosions got louder. She jumped up and ran to her son’s room to find him standing on the threshold with his teddy bear, sobbing. From the window of his room behind him she noticed a burst of color; the bangs were only fireworks, set off by the overly excited football fans.

“Is the noise scaring you? It’s only some colorful fireworks, see?” Amina said, trying to exhibit calm and poise.

Tears kept pouring down her son’s face. Amina sighed and scooped him up in her arms. “You can sleep with Mommy and Daddy, okay?” Her son nodded, tears still flowing. Amina carred him back to her room, her own eyelids drooping.

***

The next morning, Amina prepared herself coffee while the rest of the family was still fast asleep, her son and husband cuddled in bed. She certainly was not going to skip her coffee and observe the fast today. Both the fireworks and her son’s sobs had lasted what seemed like hours.

While she was sipping her coffee, the phone rang. She picked it up, wondering who would call her so early, especially during Ramadan.

“Hello?” she answered. The voice on the other end came through what seemed like a long distance.

“Amina, is that you?” Amina couldn’t miss her father’s voice, even through a bad connection.

“Baba! How are you?”

“We’ve left,” he called through the phone. “We’ve gone to Budapest to stay with your mother’s cousins.” She couldn’t tell if the connection was breaking or if his voice was faltering.

“To Budapest!” Amina exclaimed. “I didn’t know you were leaving Syria. Are you safe? What happened?”

“We’re fine now. But the terrorists went too far. We thought we couldn’t keep ourselves safe from them anymore, so we decided it was best to leave. Amina, it took so long just to find our way out of the country…we didn’t even know that millions of other Syrians were already on the same route. Thankfully we have our family here in Budapest. Everyone we met while traveling here was passing through Hungary just to go further west to seek asylum. At least your mother and I are safe here with her family for now.”

“Oh, Baba, I’m so glad you both are okay!” Amina’s hand trembled, and she set her coffee down on the counter. She had been imagining the worst as she listened: terrorists kidnapping her mother, her parents getting trapped in crowded trains, or being chased by border police, just for trying to find a safe place to sleep.

Amina talked to her father for several minutes more, letting him assure her that everything was okay. Finally it was time to go to work, so she reluctantly hung up the phone. Her husband had come in while she was on the phone, and she recounted the whole story to him before leaving, her head a jumble of thoughts and she left her apartment.

She drove to work and parked her car in the underground garage before getting in the elevator. Her thoughts kept circling around her elderly parents, sitting in a train packed full of refugees, desperate for any other life. She reached the second floor and went to unlock the door.

Someone must have been smoking, she thought. The whole corridor reeked of it. She had never smelled such a strong smell of stale smoke. She opened the door, only to find the clinic blackened with ashes. Where there had once been six chairs in a semi-circle, there were only stumps of blackened wood. The stacks of magazines waiting for clients were only piles of ash, and the formerly beige carpet was just a few tufts of black fuzz. The waiting room, which had once been clean and welcoming, now looked like it had been in a war zone. Amina didn’t know what to think. She stepped over some debris to reach the window. There was a hole in the middle windowpane, blackened around the edges, like everything else. She looked at the ground next to the window. There were the remains of a firecracker, still steaming slightly. That small toy must have been what caused all the damage.

Amina thought back to the previous night’s fireworks. It had to have been the football fans, who were so notorious for their destructive post-match behavior. There was no purpose to their violent actions, yet they had just destroyed her business. This must be what it is like to live in Syria, she thought. Your life’s work ruined by senseless people, who give no thought to the hopes and desires of others. To have everything you’ve worked for reduced to a pile of rubble just because of someone else’s uncontrolled emotions.

As she glanced over the damage, cars continued to whiz by on the street below, as always. Horns honked, and a motorcycle sped noisily down the boulevard. Casablanca will never quiet down, Amina thought, but yet it’s home. She turned around and stepped back over the rubble, exiting the office. She would call the other employees and inform them of what had happened, and tell them to just take the day off. She would go back home and spend the day with her son. She could leave the repairs to the clinic for another day.