17 April 2011

Casablanca Part II

...And we're back!

The next few times I went to Casa was with my boyfriend of that era to stay with his cousin Rachid while we were traveling or doing “errands” in the city. This was when I began to forget about the cityscape and focus on what it would be like to live in Casa as a middle-class Moroccan. I saw the city for the first time by private car, when Rachid drove us around. I got to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the third biggest mosque in the world. I made his family cheesecake and walked around with his wife to buy the ingredients we needed. I got to see the cheap shopping I had heard so much about and big street markets where I could buy anything for half the price or less that you could find in Marrakech.

Most importantly for me, however, I got to celebrate Ramadan with Rachid’s family. Which meant that, after some heated conversation with my boyfriend, I got to visit their family in the shantytowns and break the fast with them. In Morocco, there is a tendency to want to hide from guests anything that is “undesirable.” Many people I know hate to talk about the poverty and drug use and other bad things in their country. They won’t talk about the problems they’re having at home. And since shantytowns are “bad places” where “bad boys” hang out, my boyfriend thought he was trying to protect me, the blindingly white girl who stands out wherever she goes, from whatever could happen to me there. But I needed to go, and I’m so thankful that he relented to take me with him there.

Shantytowns, especially in Casa, were just fields before people from the countryside came to work in the city. Because they had no money when they came, and couldn’t afford to pay rent, they acquired cheap building materials like concrete, tin, and rocks, and built what houses they could. And thus they grew and grew. Most Americans will have pictures of shantytowns in Sub-Saharan Africa in their minds, but, through my experience, these are a little less…end-of-the-world looking. There is trash everywhere yes, but that’s ubiquitous throughout Morocco. The houses look sturdy enough to stand a few rainstorms. And, it many houses, there are cement floors, and enough furniture for no one to sleep on the floor. Still, you could have anywhere from 6 to 10 people sleeping in one room, and most likely 6 or 7 families will share one toilet.

What really struck me when going to “break-fast” in the shantytown was how normally Moroccan, in my mind, anyways, these people were. They sat me down in the nice salon, fed me the guest food, talked about me in Arabic with my boyfriend in front of me, laughed and joked, and walked around outside after the meal. Much later, I saw a movie about these shantytowns that summed it up very well. “What is a poor person?” the young man in the movie asked. “He’s just a person that doesn’t have any money. He still has hopes, dreams, he still has dignity.” That Ramadan night really helped me appreciate what lessons Casa could teach me, and reminded me never to dismiss a place or a person based on first impressions.

From that last visit to Rachid’s family, I have tried hard to see the beauty behind the glaring ugly that is Casa. I thought I had completed my picture of the city, but recently I had to go down for the day to apply for a new passport. I got of the train in the pleasantly hot Moroccan sun, had the great fortune to have a friendly talkative taxi driver who didn’t hit on me, and arrived on the palm-lined Boulevard Moulay Youssef relatively unscathed. I got there late, and a guard at the consulate told me, no I’m sorry, you can’t go in anymore, because American Citizen Services closes at 3, and look, it’s 3:10. When he saw my face, and my dejected walk away, he called over the door guard, and asked if he could get me in, and they decided that it wouldn’t hurt to try. This is a normal thing to happen in Morocco, but based on my experience at the impregnable French consulate, I didn’t expect them to be so nice and so Moroccan about it.

After my appointment, my lunch of seafood in a sunny, breezy café led me to look around and realize that I could actually picture myself living in this city. If I had a job. If I had friends. If I had a family. That was a such a surprise that I almost dropped my fork. Maybe it was because I had gone back to the States this time, maybe it was because I am living in Rabat now, a grimy crowded city itself, maybe it was the breeze or the summer feel in early April. Whatever it was, I mulled over the thought for the rest of the day to make sure it was true. But yes, in the end I decided that Casa has grown on me, and I could actually see myself liking the place. Who knew!

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