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We're in Casablanca!

Abeja's tour through the Market

Follow Abeja through the Casablanca market.

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With the sun low in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, the Odyssey World Trek team descends from the clouds to al-Maghareb al-Aqsa, 'the furthest land of the setting sun.' We've landed into the world of my favorite fairy tales, a mythical land of romance and intrigue, of Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, of Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.

Just a short magic carpet ride over the Sahara desert brings us to Casablanca, Morocco, the first 'Arabic' country on this trek. Souks, medinas, kasbahs, Turkish baths, mosques, sultans, belly dancers, dates and couscous -- my imagination runs wild with the images from books, television and movies. The Casablanca airport simultaneously shatters and confirms my preconceived notions. Ultra-modern in design and facilities, it is still exotic, with arabesque tile work and fountains.

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A photo as we descend on "the furthest land of the setting sun."
A lot has changed since Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart hid here at Rick's from the Nazis in the movie "Casablanca." What I imagined to be a small, dingy, Arabic port is really a large cosmopolitan city - the largest city in Morocco, in fact. Here, the clothes women wear can differ as if they were from the opposite sides of the world. While some are in the most recent styles from Paris, others are in long gowns with their head and lower face fully covered. Jasmine, Monica, Kavitha and I laugh and talk excitedly, pointing out here and there from the taxi cab window on our way from the airport. I'm learning that Casablanca is not just an "Arab" city anymore than Morocco is an "Arab" country. The architecture blends French, Mediterranean, and Arabic styles to make a beautiful modern city with fancy tile work, minurets, and arches. We pass a beautiful tall white church. When we ask our cab driver, he tells us that it is the "Spanish Mosque."

"Aren't the Spanish Catholics?" I asked, confused. It turned out to be a Catholic Cathedral!

This certainly doesn't feel like anywhere else that we've been in Africa. The Sahara Desert effectively divides Africa into "sub-Saharan" and "Northern" Africa. The native people of Northern Africa aren't black; they are Berbers and have a light, Mediterranean complexion. Yet they are just as African as Black Africans. Today, the coastal cities like Casablanca are a mix of native Berbers, Arabs that came in the 7th century, blacks brought across the Sahara as slaves by the ancient traders or recently arrived in search of work or education, and Europeans that have come in the last two centuries. The Atlas mountains are still traditionally Berber, I'm told. I don't know how to tell the Arabs and the Berbers apart yet, but I've been told they are different in dress and features - some Berbers even have blond hair and blue eyes! That's not what I think of as native Africans! Today, many have intermarried, so it's harder to tell the difference.

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These arabesque tiles at the market decorate the water faucet. I've never seen a public water fountain like that before!
Jasmine and I spent the next morning wandering through the market, shopping for fruits, breads, and cheeses for Monica's 26th birthday breakfast. It was early, but the open-air market was already bustling with a fascinating mix of people. The stalls were bright and beautifully laid out, bursting with a wide variety of fresh and yummy food - a sharp contrast to the limited options of Mali! There were fresh figs, dates, and a variety of nuts at one stall, cheeses of all types at another, and a bakery with unlimited goodies. My favorite place was the stand with local apples, plums, bananas, oranges, peaches, pears, and dozens of other ripe fruits.

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Even though the stand was beautiful, we decided not to get Monica a raw fish for her birthday.
Looking around at the exotic foods and people, I kept thinking back to the mythology of the Mediterranean, of Phoenicians and Romans as well as Arabs, that reached as far as Morocco. We're getting close to the area where Homer's Odyssey took place! Our namesake! Casablanca was first founded as a Phoenician port several centuries before the Christian era for trade with the Berbers. The sailing ships of the Romans and their rivals, the Phoenicians from Tunisia, pursued the Mediterranean spreading culture and heritage, not just commodities. As if that wasn't romantic enough, Pirates were based here in the tiny port of Anfa (as Casablanca was known then) on and off for centuries.


Intrigued - to be interested or curious

Cosmopolitan - having to do with the 'big city'

Intermarried - when two parties or groups become connected by marriage

Mythology - stories about particular cultures which take on a larger than life quality

Commodity - something that is bought and sold
After Carthage (the Phoenician capital) fell to the Romans in 146 B.C, Anfa became the capital of the Berber kingdom Berghouta. It's amazing to think that we know history that old so precisely! I mean, everywhere else we've been only had a good written history from the last, say, 200-300 years. Now, suddenly, we're talking about two thousand years ago. The Arab armies didn't even arrive from the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century...which is still eight centuries before any written records exist from my home country! That means that the Worldtrekers have ten times as much history to cover here. Hey, I want a raise!

The Portuguese were the first to make Casablanca (or Casa Branca in Portuguese) a city in 1575, but the proud Berbers forced them out after two hundred years. (Wait! America has only been around for two hundred you suppose the natives could rise up and kick the "colonists" out?) Then the Sultan Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah reconstructed the town and called it Dar el Beida. Then, in the mid-19th century, the Spanish started to settle there, renaming it Casa Blanca (the white house). There were only about 700 people living in this little village at the time - times sure have changed!

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Jasmine and flower vendor, Mohammed, put together a beautiful bouquet for Monica
Unfortunately, my Spanish skills aren't doing me any good here. In the bustling market, everyone was totally friendly and willing to overcome the language barrier with a laugh. Most people's first language is Arabic or one of the many Berber languages. Their second language, though, is French, because the French took over Casablanca in 1907. Good thing I had practice in Mali, because I only know a few words in Arabic - and none in Berber!

While I was buying food, Jasmine had gone to the flower market and made a huge bouquet of exotic fresh flowers for Monica's birthday. We hurried back to the hotel through the morning bustle, and set up a breakfast fit for a queen, all while Monica was still asleep. What a magical morning!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Kavitha - Do You Believe in God? Do You Believe in Miracles?
Jasmine - Dinner for Twelve
Monica - Extra! Extra! Read All About It - the Odyssey's in Morocco!
Monica - Extra! Extra! Lisez tout sur l'Odyssey au Maroc!
Making a Difference - Abeja gets M.A.D.-- She's Making a Difference

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