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.
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.
Melaka is a city apart. You know it the instant you approach the city by road: no towering skyscrapers and condominiums to cower you. It’s a city laidback, almost dreamily, sprawling horizontally, content with its traditional architecture and at home with modern infrastructure. Unlike the gloom and decadence of a typical old city in the subcontinent, Melaka exudes freshness and contentment.
Published in Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan, in its Friday Magazine, 13 December 1996.
The first thing that strikes you when you land in Jakarta is its airport. The glass-covered pavilions and ramp ways are flanked on both sides by lush foliage and tall trees. You feel as if you are walking through a garden. A perfect blend of traditional Javanese structure and modern technology, the simple, graceful building of Sukarno-Hatta International Airport, opened in 1985–the recipient of the Aga Khan Architecture Award–is a window to the rich and unique cultural identity of Indonesian archipelago.
As the taxi drove down the busy intersection of the dual carriageway, lined with buildings, the driver asked us ”Which department?” Bewildered, we told him to first take us to the Institute. “This is the campus”, he said. So, we had already entered the Institut Technology Sepuluh Nopember, Surabaya. With no boundary walls, its many departments, administration blocks and the staff town intermingled with the city. Like a live organ of the throbbing metropolis. Unlike our academic institutes–walled, hedged, fenced, enclaved. Guarded by rangers. Isolated from the city and its dwellers. As if existing outside its space and time.
In Bali–the lush green, mountainous little island of the Indonesian archipelago–every other person you talk to has an artist in the family–a painter, sculptor, wood carver, dancer. As you drive away from Denpasar–the bustling capital city of Bali, the winding, smooth, metallic road is dotted with villages, each specializing in a different craft. In Batubulan live stone carvers, chipping away at big blocks of soft grey stone, carving out huge statues and enormous temple gates. Celuk is a thriving centre of silversmiths, creating intricate filigrees, fine jewellery and miniatures. In Sukawati people make wind chimes from bamboo and weave baskets from coconut-palm leaves. The villagers of Mas excel in wood carving–human and animal figures, face masks. The people in Puaya create leather shadow puppets for wayang kulit (shadow-puppet play).