Carmen and I lived in Casablanca for six months and as I wasn’t working I had time to write in the mornings, usually while drinking many pots of mint tea. Below are a selection of my stories written while I was there.
The two types of veil most commonly seen in Morocco are the hijab and the niqab, but there are many more styles. The hijab is a scarf that covers the head and neck but leaves the face uncovered, and the niqab covers all but the eyes. The veil is worn to preserve the modesty of the woman and to avoid arousing desire in men, bless their cotton socks, but the type of veil worn does not necessarily reflect the beauty of the woman and the amount of desire she is likely to arouse. You see niqab-clad hunchbacked women of obviously advanced years with nothing but their eyes visible, these often covered by bottle-bottom glasses, while young, attractive, and heavily made-up women wearing the latest fashions will be wearing the hijab. Some young women who wear the niqab take great care to make what little is showing as attractive as possible by the liberal application of khol, at times challenging Cleopatra in their efforts.
Money and education have a direct bearing on whether women wear a veil at all. If you go around the old medinas you will notice that nearly all the women are wearing at least a hijab, but go to the business sector of any city or a branch of a European supermarket and you will see that there are very few women with any kind of covering at all. Much seems to be made of he fact that Islam makes women wear a veil and therefore represses them, but often the women wear the veil of their own volition, as a sign of respect and love for their family traditions or religion, as do Quakers, Amish and Menonites, Franciscans and Catholic nuns to name but a few.
The Quran says that the veil should be worn to reflect modesty and there’s nothing wrong with that, but Islam did not introduce the veil, they were being worn by women in this part of the world millennia before Mohammad and were probably mentioned purely as they were the style of the day. You could compare it with skirts worn in the West which have varied from maxi to midi to mini to hot-pants. Some would say that mini skirts are immodest, but that is matter of opinion and is dependent on the age and morals of the assessor.
When the temperature reaches 40+ºC it makes sense to wear protective clothing. The noble Taureg with his whole face less his eyes covered by his blue headdress to protect him from the Saharan sun is never questioned, it’s common sense to dress like that. In fact, in my village in Southern Spain, the women wear veils when they’re working in the fields for the same reason, and they wear scarves or other head-coverings when they go to church. It is true that there are Islamic fundamentalists who dress in a manner which is not understood by other religions, but there are many other sects or religions which do the same; the naked Hindu sadhu in India, the Israeli Hassidim in 17th century Polish garb, Christian monks and friars in their hooded habits, and nuns with their version of the hijab showing chastity and devotion to Christ.
If you seek to criticise these people, you have missed the point. That is why religions are also called beliefs or convictions. If it bothers you, that is your problem, get over it. Just get on with life and live and let live.
Food and drink
The patisseries in Morocco are spectacular. I suspect it is the influence of the French but the Moroccans say they influenced the French and who knows the truth? A great deal of the pastries are finished with a coating of honey and the bees in the area make full use of this and all the displays are covered in bees. This may seem a bit strange to westerners but the bees love their own produce and come back for more. I would love to taste the honey these bees produce, twice distilled as it is. Many shops have holes cut in the windows to let the bees come and go and at times the shop is full of bees. A little disconcerting for anyone who is allergic to bee stings or who doesn’t like bees, but after a few trips to the patisserie you don’t notice and even start to miss them if they are no longer there, as in the evenings.
The roadside cafes are great value, whether just for tea and coffee. The small restaurants that serve tagine and barbecued meat, sausages, poulet and lamb, all for a pittance but healthy and wholesome, with a couple of small round wholemeal breads thrown in for free, are great places to get away from the hustle and bustle for a couple of hours. A meal for two with a couple of soft drinks costs less than the price of the ingredients in European supermarkets and all is ‘that day’ fresh.
One can’t visit Casablanca without going to Rick’s Cafe and Carmen and I are no different, so off we went one evening. We had seen the place often as it is very near the part of the Medina where Asiya and her family live, just in front of the Naval barracks. The building has been very well restored and is not too kitsch. It hasn’t religiously followed the film set although the bar is similar, and of course there was a piano waiting for Sam to arrive and do his thing. We arrived early and had a drink at the bar, and tried to chat to the barman, although he wasn’t too hospitable, being more interested in chatting to his colleagues. We were the first ones there and had a chance to look around. Several tables had been reserved, as one would expect on a Saturday night, and a stool at the far end of the bar also had a reserved sign in front of it, I guessed for the owner,and we waited for Humphrey Bogart to arrive. I am not a stranger to bars the world over and this had a nice atmosphere, although more from the perspective of observing the people who were now arriving than by the ambience.
We weren’t sure whether we were going to eat or not but asked for the menu and decided that we would. We were given the best table in in the house in front of the piano, surprised that it hadn’t been reserved and wondered if the proximity to the piano would ruin conversation when Sam started to play. The owner arrived, dressed in a silver lamé suit, and took her place at the bar. She had dark, almost black lipstick, and had her shortish hair done in the American, CNN presenter style, the kind where the hair never moves no matter what the owner does. She appeared to be in her fifties and looked around her bar to suss the punters. We ordered our meal and a bottle of Moroccan wine, the price of which would have paid Asiyah’s rent for a fortnight, and got stuck in. The food was good, obviously French influenced, and the filet mignon I had was perfectly cooked, although with not too much taste, but I had found this with other fillets in Morocco. The owner rose from her stool and ghosted, there is no other word for it, around the tables welcoming diners and asking if all was O.K. I have never seen anyone so bored and so mechanically doing what seemed to be such a chore. The waiters were a bit reticent at first but we soon got them to loosen up by practising our Arabic on them. Then Sam arrived, or rather Issam, as he said he was called but which seemed a bit too close for authenticity. He played a very pleasant medley of tunes, asking us if the music was too loud, which we said wasn’t. We waited for him to play ‘As Time Goes By’ as is mandatory and we finished our meal and left. A pleasant enough evening which was nicely rounded off as we were leaving with a voice from behind us which suddenly said, ‘ ‘Ere, ‘ang abaht,’ in a thick London accent. We turned to see a Moroccan man dressed in a jellabah and fez offering us some publicity about the bar. It turned out he had lived in London for years, near Vauxhall Bridge, and had picked up the argot there.
It is very easy to make friends in Morocco and indeed in most Arab countries, as a result of Islam’s teachings of hospitality. One meeting and you are friends, two meetings and you are bosom buddy pals. But don’t ever try to understand them, you will undoubtedly be let down. This is not intentional, but Arabs will do anything to avoid hurting your feelings, even though this may hurt more when you find out they have been trying to save your feelings. An example of this was when I asked a friend, on a Thursday afternoon, if he would like to meet for coffee at the weekend. He agreed to do so and we arranged a meeting place and time. I waited for two hours but it was a no-show. The next time I saw him I asked him where he had been. He told me that he had been at his brother’s wedding! I said that surely he knew his brother was getting married when he made the arrangement for coffee on the Thursday and he said that of course he did, but he didn’t want to hurt my feelings by declining the offer. Two hours wasted of a Saturday morning hurt my feelings more but the look of hurt and guilt on his face mad it impossible to have a rant at him.
How I made a friend by the seaside
We were down by the sea one day, driving along the Corniche on our way to a restaurant. Suddenly, a policeman waved me down, our Spanish number plate being a red rag to a bull, and told me that his colleagues had just contacted him by radio. Cue radio which he waved in my face. Evidently I had jumped a red light, which I hadn’t as there are no traffic lights on this part of the Corniche, but arguing in these situations is useless. He asked for my passport and driving licence, took them and put them in his pocket and gloatingly moved to the pavement. I clambered out of the car and asked him how much the fine was for such a traffic violation, and he told me 500 dirhams. I acted surprised and told him that in Spain the fine was only 200 dirhams, although in fact I have no idea what it is. He smiled and said that in that case, as I spoke some Arabic and that made us friends he would take 200 dirhams and we wouldn’t bother with all the paperwork. Knowing when I am well and truly over a barrel and relishing the fact that I had made a new chum, I paid up, not in public, of course, but with a bit of sleight of hand when he handed me back my documents. I thereby saved a trip to his colleagues, a further hour or so of discussions, which would have cost me 400 dirhams as I would have had to slip them 200 dirhams as well, or at worst, have paid 500 dirhams for a bogus fine. But now I have a new friend who waves to me every time I pass his post along the Corniche and who I am sure will protect me if any other policemen try to muscle in on his patch.