I send a Facebook message to my friend and classmate Mehdi on Tuesday afternoon. I’m vaguely aware that he’s gone back to his home country of Morocco and is potentially in Casablanca, though I’m unsure of his exact schedule. I jot a quick, “Salut Mehdi — ca va?”, tell him my schedule, and ask if he might be around on Thursday for lunch.
Mehdi replies an hour later that ” hospitality is a duty to Moroccans” and that he will rearrange his schedule and pick me up at the airport.
With less than 36 hours until my arrival, this is way above the call of duty. I thank him profusely, feeling relieved a friendly face will be greeting me in Morocco.
Mehdi proves to be not only a paragon of Moroccan hospitality, but an excellent tour guide who knows how to show a visitor around Casablanca. We eat a lazy breakfast on a patio in a garden, then visit the Mosque Hassan II — the third largest mosque in the world. It’s breathtaking.
Every surface of the vast interior is lavishly carved with intricate designs. Incredibly, the entire structure was built in just six years. Our tour guide explains that tens of thousands of people worked in shifts 24 hours a day to complete it in such a short time span.
“Every Moroccan helped build this,” Mehdi says.
“Everyone paid something for it,” he explains. “You had to give at least 10 dirham (about $1.20), but many gave much more.” I like the way he phrased it initially — I picture every Moroccan owning a piece of this beautiful building.
We meander around the old quarter next. It caters almost too cleanly to the tourist set seeking an Arabian Nights market incarnate — stacks of copper pots, rolled carpets, and glass hookahs, mixed with the usual 21st century tourist flotsam of dusty postcards and camel plushies sporting “I ❤ MOROCCO” banners. It’s nice to wander around and window shop all the same.
Mehdi stops us at a street vendor selling freshly pressed orange juice. We watch the vendor quickly halve and squish a half dozen oranges straight into glass cups. It’s probably the best 5 dirham you could spend in Morocco: the orange juice is so stunningly fresh and sweet, it’s hard to believe it’s made from the same fruit as cartoned Tropicana.
We close out our day with a lazy lunch along the beach. We drink beers called “Casablanca” under a large umbrella; I order an amazing seafood tagine, a big chunk of fish baked with so many spices, I can’t identify half of them. As we eat, we meet a Ecuadoran woman and her Moroccan husband sipping rose and chasing after their two toddling children. Funnily enough, they used to live in Manhattan.
“I love New York,” the man says. “But it’s enough. Now, I go once a year, once every few years, I see my friends, boom. Goodbye, thank you.” He gestures at the rolling Atlantic and the blue sky. “This, I want to stay here now.”
I certainly understand why.