As our train proceeded from Fez to Marrakech, the pink city, I wondered what Jama al-Fina, the square in Marrakech’s old medina, would be like. Just before our journey, I had discovered a novel by a Moroccan writer Youssef Fadel, A beautiful white cat walks with me — a compelling, eerie and grim story of Sanawat-ar-Rusas (the years of lead), the reign of King Hasan II (1960s to 1980s) marked by political repression and violence. A masterpiece, this novel is a story of those years told by a father-and-son duo. A king’s private jester at the royal court, the father had begun his career as a story-teller at Jama al-Fina.
After a six-hour journey from Shahfshawan, we got down at the bus station in Fez, the highlight of our journey, wherein lies the oldest Islamic metropolis, that has retained its character and structure through the centuries.
The next day we decided to visit the nearby city Tétouan. I was keen to visit Tétouan as I was told by several shop keepers in Shafshawan that Tétouan is known as a city of artisans and artists and many art galleries and craft shops in Shafshawan are owned by Tétouanis. Also, the city has the only fine arts university in Morocco, the National Institute of Fine Arts Tétouan. Unfortunately, it was closed the day we visited. We took pictures of students’ art projects placed in the verandah and the garden.
As our bus moved away from Rabat, traversing the plains and the slopes, and then wound its way up the Rif mountains, I looked at the view: scenic, yes, but those who have seen the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges and its many valleys, the Rif mountainous region has nothing to write home about. But when the contours of the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Morocco started to emerge, I couldn’t take my eyes off the window of the moving bus. Nestled up on the mountain terrace, the city looked enticing in its many shades of blues and neat structures. Spelt Chefchauoen, a word I had wondered about and was not able to pronounce properly, turned out to be شفشاون on a signboard in Arabic — simple and melodious.
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.
“Why are you going to Morocco? What is there to see?’ asked the officer who stamped our passports at the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi. He was not the only one to wonder: a few friends and relatives had also looked at us quizzically. Morocco I associated, first and foremost, with Fatima Mernissi, the sociologist, writer, Islamic scholar and feminist whose work I came across and read with fascination in the 1980s. Then two decades later, it was Tahar Ben Jalloun’s Leaving Tangier and A Palace in the Old Village, Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits and Youssef Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me –sad and gripping stories of migration, home-coming, clash of tradition with modernity, constitutional monarchy and its pomp and power, conflict with the Saharawi desert people – revealing the dark, seamy side of Morocco and the frailties and foibles of humanity residing in an ancient land nine miles away from Spain if you cross via the Strait of Gibraltar, from where Tariq bin Ziyad led the Muslim conquest of Spain in 711 AD.