Travels to Morocco Part II: Sights and Sounds of Rabat

Published in Dawn’s Prism on 22 January 2020

In June, we decided to explore Morocco’s enchanting cities and took a labyrinthine route into the country. From Casablanca, located at the central-western part, we traversed the northwestern cities of Rabat, Shafshawan and Tétouan. Finally, my daughter and I then came down to Fez in the central-north, proceeding to the southwestern city Marrakech, the last city on our two-week itinerary, before catching the return flight from Casablanca.

As we got down from the train at the new Rabat-Agdal Railway Station, we marvelled at its state-of-the-art structure, facilities and ambiance. Opened in November 2018, along with the launch of the bullet train Al-Boraq, the station symbolises the transformation of the city into a dynamic modern metropolis, yet retaining some of its historic identity.

Rabat street art.

The first thing you notice as you get out of the station and your taxi cruises down the boulevards is the street art in Rabat, the capital city of Morocco. It is not the kind of the art on the walls you occasionally come across in a teeming metropolis like Karachi. In Rabat, you discover eclectic murals painted in vibrant colours not just on the walls but on the facades of commercial buildings, residential blocks, public institutions, car parks, letterboxes, or whatever adequate urban space is available. Painted in diverse styles — realistic, modern, calligraphic, digital, abstract, and surrealistic — street murals and frescoes take you by surprise and make you wonder at the spirit and the ingenuity of the city and, of course, the support of the state without which an art and culture friendly urban habitat is impossible to sustain.

I also discovered that local graffiti in Moroccan cities evolved gradually into a street art movement. The EAC L’Boulvart (Arts and Cultural Education), a not-for-profit association founded in 1999 in Casablanca, promotes contemporary music and urban culture in Morocco.

Since 2011, another association Alouane Baladi (colour of my country) involves the local population to embrace, and the artists to paint, the buildings’ facades on the themes of social justice, politics and feminism. The state supports such art projects. In 2013, EAC L’Boulvart began the annual street art festival Sbagha Bagha (‘paint desires’ in the Berber language) in Casablanca. Meanwhile, in Rabat, the National Museum Foundation supported the launch of its first street art festival called Jidar (wall) in 2015. The annual festivals, funded by the state and the corporate sector, invite local and international artists, identify spaces and provide materials.

The taxi driver dropped us at the Derb Souaf gate of the medina, the old town in Rabat where we had booked a room in one of the riadswhich dot the old town. A riad (a garden in Arabic) is a house with a central open courtyard, an architecture we are familiar with in the subcontinent, though such havelis and mansions have been swept away under the forces of urbanisation.

“We have two types of traditional houses — riad and dar. The house with a fountain at the centre is riad and the house with a fountain installed by the wall is called dar,” the manager of the house told us. Many of the old dilapidated riads are bought by foreigners, then renovated and turned into guest houses. The riad we stayed in was owned by a Frenchman.

Rabat’s old medina was founded in the 12th century by Abd al-Momin as a fortress and called Ribat al-Fath (stronghold of victory). In the 16th century, Muslims expelled from Spain took refuge in the city. Listed as a World Heritage Site, Rabat’s medina has retained its organic character. Wandering in its narrow cobbled-stone and brick-laid streets, we looked at the many fascinating arched main doors, and wondered about the life stories unfolding inside.

An aspect that you notice in Morocco is the presence of women in public spaces. Well, definitely more noticeable than women are on the streets and public places in Pakistan. Morocco is still a traditional Muslim society when it comes to women, though women are breaking barriers and the state policies and laws are supportive of women’s empowerment.

As a traveller, you come across women running small businesses. You find a greater number of women in services and administration. The hotel industry has its fair share of female employment but in the lower tier, as is the global trend. In all the riads we stayed in, there were women housekeepers, cleaners and sometimes managers. Fawda, a petite, agile woman of 41, manages the 8-room riad, takes care of day-to-day operations, including reservations, food services and allocation of housekeeping tasks to the all-female cleaning staff. “I am working here for the last three years,” she told me in broken English as we chatted for a while. Fawda holds a Baccalauréat Technique diploma (15 years of education) and had earlier worked at a printing press.

The first place we were keen to visit in Rabat was the Kasbah des Oudaia and the Andalusian Gardens. Fawda told us to take a stroll down the alleys of the medina which opens at the northern end to Kasbah des Oudaia and the Gardens. Rabat’s old walled city, or Madina, was the first in Morroco that we had the experience to explore. Rue Souiqa is the main market street. On the western side are the shops catering to local residents and its eastern streets branching off from Souq-al-Sebbat sell exotic arts and crafts and merchandise to tourists. Many of the streets are wide and have been recently renovated with beautifully carved wooden covering under the Old City Rehabilitation plan.

Kasbah des Oudaia, located on a hilltop at the mouth of river Bou Regreg and the Atlantic Ocean, is a fortress. Built in 1150 AD, it holds a palace (now a museum), an old mosque, a residential quarter and the Andalusian Gardens which were added later. The massive door, Bab-i-Oudaia, was half opened and when we tried to enter, we were told the museum was closed for renovation. We then walked down the adjacent carved sandstone arched door leading to the kasbah’s narrow, cobble-stone winding alleys. Houses were painted white with blue skirting and the doors were colourful, each with a distinct character. Some of the alleys had curbs where artisans displayed their wares: zillij tiles, ceramics, wooden and leather crafts and rugs.

One of the alleys, Rue Bazo, leads to the enchanting Café Maure. Located at an elevation and spread over several terraces, this open-air rustic café has sandstone columns, tiled walls, blue and black wooden stools and tables, and grassy platforms to sit on. The café offers only mint tea and coffee. Cookies and pastries are served separately by men who let you choose from a large round tasht that they carry around. There were more Rabatis than tourists at the café and one of them was playing a ney (flute). We slowly sipped the hot fragrant mint tea, inhaling the serenity and the charm of the place and looked down the terrace at the Bou Regreg river that separates the city of Rabat with its ancient sister-town Salé.

The visit to Kasbah des Oudaia is not complete without a sojourn to the alluring Andalusian Gardens. Though smaller in size, compared to the historic gardens in the Subcontinent, i.e. Shalimar Garden Lahore, Andalusian Gardens take your breath away as you enter. They have an exquisite layout with arches, structures and fountains but a friendly, cosy atmosphere. You can sit on benches under the shady trees, admire the fruit trees — orange, lemon and banana — look at blooming bougainvillaea, the foliage and flowers, relax, and watch children and kittens playing and cats napping. We had not come across so many cats at one place yet in Morocco. We wanted to linger on but the Gardens close early at 6 p.m. and we were reluctantly nudged to the entrance when the guards whistled at us to exit.

The next day Fawda arranged a taxi for us and we set out to explore the city. The first landmark was the famous Hassan Tower, an incomplete minaret of an ancient mosque whose main hall was built but whose construction was halted in 1199. The mosque was destroyed in the massive earthquake of 1755. Remnants of the wall and the tower, both made of red sandstone, and 348 stone columns of varying heights, overlooking Bou Regreg river, gives the site an eerie feeling. Opposite Hassan Tower, stands a grand structure on a raised platform — Mausoleum of Mohammad V — completed in 1971. Made of marble, intricate zellij mosaic tiles and carved cedar ceiling, it is an impressive blend of traditional and modern Moroccan architecture. Adjacent to it is a sandstone mosque built in traditional style which completes the site. What I found missing was the plaque or the information slab which are usually found at historical sites.

One of the features that I liked most about Rabat is the blend of traditional architectural elements with a modern use of interior space that many of its official buildings exhibit. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, opened in 2014, is one such example. The outermost façade of the Museum is a white colonnade of double arches with latticework. Inside the arches is the chromatic façade displaying large reproductions of works or artistic announcements of exhibitions and events. A huge mural, Time for Africa, which showed a woman painting with vibrant colours the motifs of Africa as a child looks on, welcomed us as we entered the Museum which holds a permanent collection of Moroccan artists and curates local and international artworks. We wandered in several halls, had coffee in its café and bought an artist’s watercolour rendering of Rabat’s various sites in a handy book form.

We asked the taxi driver to take us to La Marina, located at the mouth of river Bou Regreg, on the shore of Salé, an old city which served as a haven for pirates in the 17th century. Before Morocco’s independence, Salé was a hotbed of nationalist movement. The city of Salé is connected with Rabat through a new bridge and the Rabat-Salé Tramway. At La Marina, many luxury yachts and sailboats were docked. Though the Marina complex was gated, our taxi was not stopped. While strolling down the promenade, lined with cafés, boutiques and modern luxury apartments, we spotted many local people enjoying the site and the sea, sitting on the benches.

In the evening, we looked forward to meeting Salma, a young Moroccan Berber woman living in Rabat, whose contact was given to us by Zoya, my daughter’s friend. Salma invited us for dinner at Zayyane restaurant located in an upscale area. Avenue Annakhil is one of the many splendid boulevards of the area with an impressive roundabout. The restaurant, facing the square, spills over to a sidewalk with a beautifully arched façade with delicate latticework, reminding us of a jharoka. We sat outside and took a good view of the surroundings.

Salma, dressed casually in a striped t-shirt and jeans, wearing a gold pendant, shaped as a tiny map of the subcontinent, turned out to be an amazing woman with a fairy tale kind of a personal story. Salma’s family comes from Atlas, the mountain range in the southwest of the country that stretches through Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. Her parents moved to Rabat when she was a child. Salma, a graduate from Rabat University, went to work and live in Casablanca on her own for a few years. Since her return to Rabat, she has been working as an HR manager in a company. While reflecting on her interest with the subcontinent’s culture, history, music, fine arts, she told us she fell in love with the region at an early age through watching Indian movies and Pakistani TV dramas. This fascination led her to study various aspects of South Asia on her own. It was Pakistan that won her heart eventually, firstly due to religious affinity, and secondly through a romantic friendship. While in high school, 17-year-old Salma met and befriended a boy from Lahore through a youth-run organisation. Now after 10 years of internet contact and three visits to Pakistan, Salma is set to marry her soul mate in November this year in Lahore. (Postscript: Salma got married in November 2019).

Fluent in several languages — mother tongue Amazigh, Darija (Moroccan Arabic), standard Arabic, French and English, Urdu and Hindi — Salma profiles herself on social media as a person ‘Lost somewhere between India and Pakistan. Accidentally born in Morocco’. She joined a social media group of young Pakistani booklovers, Bookay, in 2013 and since then has made a lot more friends in the subcontinent. Aside from her unusual love for the subcontinent, Salma represents the young urban Moroccan woman — aspiring for higher education, economic participation and freedom to choose her own path in life.

View this article on Dawn’s website.

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