Casablanca: Play It Again, Sam? No, Thanks

Monday, December 22, 2008 | Casablanca, Morocco

The Hassan II Mosque is Casablanca's only real destination of note.
Casablanca's airport is the city's biggest draw, without which it's hard to find a compelling reason to visit the rather dingy, sprawling port. Lacking the charm of other Moroccan seaside towns, Casa (as it is known locally) seems content to focus on its role as the country's primary industrial and business center.

Even classic movie buffs who visit the real Casablanca are likely to be disappointed. While grimy in its own right, Casa doesn't measure up to the charmingly raucous outlaw town of the famous film. (The model for that port was actually Tangier, located several hundred miles north along the Atlantic coast.) Finally, the movie was filmed entirely in Hollywood, not Morocco. Although today, the staff of Casablanca's several Rick's Cafés and Rex Cafés are happy to let visitors believe otherwise.

Casa's generally dull character probably convinced the previous monarch to erect his magnum opus there, just to spice the place up. The Hassan II Mosque, stunningly large and intricately adorned, is impressive to behold. Since we were already in Casa to pick up my mom and sister from the airport, Jacqueline and I brought them to visit the mosque.

Like the Pyramids at Giza, Casa's grand mosque is a splendid monument to monarchical arrogance and capriciousness. At over 200 meters high, its minaret is the world's tallest, and is topped with a laser beam shining toward Mecca. At prayer times, the cavernous prayer hall and surrounding patios can accommodate up to 120,000 worshippers. (Out of deference, the king and his architects had to stop there so as not to surpass the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.) The monarch's lineage—reaching all the way back to the Prophet Mohammed—is ostentatiously gilded onto one prominent column. The interior decoration is glitzy and bathed in a fluorescent-light glow.

And then there's the partially retractable roof. (Even with royalty, there's no accounting for taste.)

Today, 15 years after the mosque opened, many ordinary Moroccans still silently bear their grudge against the building, the construction of which was financed by heavy taxation and many non-voluntary public "contributions" during the 1980s and early '90s.

Our tour of the mosque was brief and hardly worth the 120 dirham entrance fee. For twenty minutes or so, the tour guide went through the motions, offering a few superlative statements about the mosque's size, rattling off figures about its construction (seven years, 77 engineers and architects, around 6,000 craftsmen, etc.), and hustling us to the end. En route, we passed through the tacky prayer hall and a few underground hammam spaces built purely for show. Our best views of the mosque, by far, came from the exterior, early in the morning.

So overall, play it again, Sam? No, thanks. While we will undoubtedly pass through Casa during future airport transfers, the city offers little reason to linger.

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