Old Medina – Casablanca Part 1

When I think of Morocco, I think of Marrakech – colourful bazaars, bulging sacks of spices, earthy and jewel-coloured tagines.  When I thought of Casablanca, I thought of the Humphrey Bogart movie – a movie that never even saw a hint of the real Morocco.  Sometimes on my journey this year, I had turned up in a country with absolutely no preconceptions of the place, and in others I had researched and read around the country beforehand. I sometimes opt to go into a place with an open-mind and some mindfulness, to try to experience a place with thoughts unclouded by expectations.   So it was with very little preconception of the place that I entered Casablanca in May this year.

We docked at an industrial port of the edge of town, and so I and my friends had to walk a good 20 minutes to the dock gates through dust, and a peculiar stink that wasn’t quite human, nor natural either. Turning right alongside a dusty highway with an onslaught of traffic bearing down upon us, kicking up grime into billowing wakes behind it, we ducked in through an archway and found ourselves in Old Medina, the old city of Casablanca – walled, dishevelled, and filled with buildings pushed up against each other, paint peeling from the walls, iron grills on the windows.  People seemed to eye us with interest, lingering in groups outside the post office and the Western Union.  They must have known the ship was coming in, and did not seem surprised by our presence.  We cut through the town and came out on the other side, locating a café at which we had thick, fragrant coffee and croissants for breakfast.

A melon cart in Old Medina Nikon D5000 35mm ISO 200 F/1.8 1/4000s

After that, our main objective was to get to the Hassan II Mosque, whose enormous minaret (the world’s tallest at 210m) punctures the sky from almost every vantage point in the city, making it quite easy to get our bearings as we worked our way towards it.  Walking back into the old walled town, we navigated alleyways lined with tourist-tat, clothes and shishas, shop vendors enthusiastically hawking their wares as we passed.  Occasionally, one of them would ask us where we were going, and we all replied “to the mosque”, which had the interesting effect of us being then left alone or pointed in the right direction.  The last man who spoke to us, though, gave us a warning rather than directions.  Coming to the end of a tiny shopping street, he urged us:  “Don’t go that way! The road ends.  There’s nothing for you that way.”  Perhaps he merely wanted us to stay within the shopping district and spend money, but in hindsight later that day, I felt as though I should have heeded him a little more.

As it happened, the road did end.  Kind of.  We suddenly found ourselves in a small courtyard full of muddy puddles, walled in by tall, drab buildings on all sides, where a young naked boy was washing himself under a tap and other people were coming and going from a small alleyway on the left.  It was a strange tableaux to stumble across after the gaudy exteriors of the tourist streets only moments before. The only way through was the alleyway to the left, which didn’t seem all that inviting.  I told my friends that maybe we should go back and find another way through, but they had already gone on before me and as I was loath to be left behind, I quickly followed.

If my hell took the form of an alleyway, this would be it. My first hint at something unpleasant was the stacked wooden cages of chickens I saw up ahead.  As I passed an open doorway on my right I was presented with a similar stack of cages, where the chickens were all cowering against each other at one end of the box. At the opposite  end, on top of the cage, was the lifeless corpse of a chicken, whose wrung neck was slung over the side on ropey, tendinous threads, still half-attached to its body.

As we continued, outside other buildings more crates full of chickens sat waiting to die in front of each other.  Further along we passed butcher’s shops with recently dead animals slung up in front of them.  One had the head of a cow positioned on its counter, the lower jaw missing and its long pale tongue lolling limply down onto the counter top, flies circling and descending for quick, nervous probing before being scattered by the passing of people.

Had I had the stomach and the presence of mind, I would have documented this all on camera.  Instead, I walked for most of the street with my eyes on the floor, my nose was assaulted with the metallic reek of freshly killed animal, for the first time in a long time causing me to feel nauseous from the scent of blood.  Just when I could see the end of the street in sight, I looked to my right to see a freshly slaughtered and skinned lump of meat hanging from a hook, the blood from the carcass dripping down onto the dusty floor below, where a tiny white kitten sat on the ground avoiding the splashes of blood from above while licking at a coagulating pool of the stuff on the floor.  The image of this tiny innocent-looking animal sitting beneath the freshly bleeding body of another is one of  my most abiding memories of Casablanca.

In fact, from the moment we turned down that alleyway, the rest of our time in Old Medina became pretty intense.  We had clearly left the tourist area and walked into the  back streets where local people went about their daily lives.  The place was noisy, dusty, hot and dirty, and we seemed to be walking through a slum – houses stacked one upon the other behind the wall of Old Medina city, people on the streets no longer selling fruit, snails, and olives, but merely laying out scrap parts – wire, cogs, diodes.  I also recall walking past a shop that only sold blenders.

I didn’t feel threatened in Old Medina, but I did feel out of my depth, perhaps for the first time in that voyage, and for the first time in a long time.  So much for going unprepared and unsullied by expectation – in hindsight, I could have done with some.  I’d be interested to see what anyone has to say about going into somewhere as I did, pretty much unprepared at what to expect, and whether you have, or would do, the same.

In Part 2, later this week, I finally get to the  Hassan II Mosque, Morocco’s largest, and the seventh largest in the world.

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