A mission to Morocco

RABAT was love at first sight. With its enchanting coastline and silvery large boats that adorned the Atlantic Ocean, the overlapping sounds of sea waves came to me in quiet staccatos as I stood on the balcony of the 5th floor of my hotel, the Golden Tulip Farah on Sidi Makhlouf 10, Rabat, that early morning.

The city was colder than I had imagined, but the chilly morning wind that blew against my face was not enough to take away the excitement of my first visit to Morocco. And as I lapped up the aquatic and terrestrial splendour of the city before me, I was informed that Rabat was not the most beautiful city in the northern African country of Morocco. ‘’If you are so mesmerised by Rabat, what will you do when you see Casablanca, or Tangier not to talk of Marrakesh? my friend, Muhammad from Jordan, said as we went for a walk in the old city after breakfast.

Wandering the narrow streets of the old city of Rabat (Dar El Marini) was a truly remarkable experience. Although not as tidy and western as modern Rabat, there was more fun in the old city. On the day of our visit, there were lots of people on the narrow streets with shops selling fish, fruits, vegetables and other merchandise. In addition, its twisting back streets were full of history, as well as several bazaars selling jewelry, fabrics, leather works, crafts, native clothes and fabrics. Amidst the chatter of traders, tourists and natives, came the strains of Moroccan music, while the air was perfumed with the aroma of spices, fragrance and burnt incense from the several cavernous shops in the old city. As we rounded one of the several serpentine streets, we found ourselves in a large open courtyard where several armed policemen on horses were stationed.  The reason for the large police presence was because of the gruesome attack on some tourists in Marrakesh by armed robbers.

In December 2018, two European lady tourists were killed in a remote part of Marrakesh, Southern Morocco. The incidence, said to be exceedingly rare in Morocco, jolted the authorities in the country which is a hugely popular tourist destination to beef up its security.

Tourism is a key element in the Moroccan economy. It has grown rapidly over a long period from 2,602,000 tourism arrivals in 1995 to 9,299,000 in 2010, making it the 24th largest tourist market in the world and the second largest among the Arab countries, It was obvious that the security men in the old city took their job seriously that our requests for photographs with them were turned down.

I had come to Morocco on the invitation of the Writers Union of Africa, Asia and Latin America, to attend its 9th International Conference scheduled for Rabat and Tangier. After settling down in my Lagos to Casablanca AT 554 Royal Air Maroc flight, I shifted my attention to the aerial map of the flight as displayed on the aircraft monitor. The map showed that the flight, which departed Lagos at 6.25, would arrive Casablanca at 11.00 of the same day at the end of a 3184 km/1979 miles trip.

Most of the flight was over the desert.  From my window seat, the desert below was an expanse of grey sunlit and utterly inhabitable mass of ridges, furrows, valleys and craggy hills. A few hours later, the desert turned into a medley of beautiful colours ranging from purple to azure blue with silvery edges where the sharp inclines of the undulating craters merged into each other. Moments later, we entered the Moroccan airspace and were soon over Ouarzazale, from where the aircraft sidestepped Marrakesh and Beni Mellal as it commenced its descent into Casablanca at the tip of the Mediterranean sea.

I was met on arrival at the Mohamed V International Airport in Casablanca by an official of the Morocco Ministry of Culture, Nainia Noureddine, who, together with his official driver, Youssef  tried to introduce their beloved country to me as we cruised along the  86 kilometre long expressway from Casablanca to Rabat. Unfortunately, communication with Nainia and Yousseff was a challenge since they could only speak French. I, therefore, had to resort to my rudimentary O level French to understand them, as well as make out the numerous public signs and names that were written in Arabic and French.  After  the one hour trip, I arrived Rabat at 12 noon to join the other delegates from about 15 other countries.

After an introductory meeting where the different chapters of the association gave its report, there was a round table discussion on the topic; “Palestine on the world scene” at the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture, during which different speakers gave deep insight into the topic.  At the ceremony of the conference, which took place in the theatre hall of the National Library on the third day, speeches were given by dignitaries such as His Excellency (H.E), Dr. Saad El Din El Osmani, Prime Minister of Morocco and H. E. Dr. Mohamed El Aaraj, Minister of Culture and Communication, among others.

In the declaration read at the conclusion of the Conference, members of the Union confirmed universal culture as the basics for the achievement of the sovereign rights of people from all walks of life. The Conference rejected extremism, ignorance and religious fundamentalism. It further called for the revival of national consciousness and continues to stand in the frontline in the struggle for social justice and global peace. In that context, the conference declared its full support for the Palestinian struggle for the achievement of their rights of freedom, as well as their efforts for the final creation of the Palestinian state with Jerusalem as the capital.

The participants at the conference further declared their support to counter religious fanaticism, as well as their support for the peaceful settlement of all local and international conflicts. Finally, participants are expectant of a future where the freedom, justice and equality of people would be achieved.

The Conference ceremony was followed by a concert where awards of recognition were given to some members of the Writers Union of Africa Asia and Latin America. At the Annual General Meeting, which rounded up the three day conference, officials who will man the third mandate of the union, among whom was this writer, were elected into office.

Apart from the meetings, seminars, workshops, the conference was spiced with several socio cultural activities and receptions such as a visit to the National Library of Morocco, the Hassan Tower and Mohamed V mausoleum, the Royal Institute of Amazigh Culture and the King Mohammed V palace, among other places of interest.

Juxtaposed between all these activities were the various lunches and dinners where Moroccan cuisine was served. As I tackled the delicious Moroccan couscous with meat, seven vegetables, as well as the  Harira soup served with lemon and dates, I agreed with a Moroccan lady who said that eating was a national Moroccan pastime. Perhaps, the highlight of the trip was a train ride to the northern Moroccan city of Tangier using the new speed train El Borak, an experience best captured in a separate article.

As is my usual practice while travelling abroad, I informed the Nigerian Embassy in Rabat well ahead of my visit and was rewarded with a wonderful response from  Ambassador Baba Garba, the Nigerian Ambassador to Morocco. Apart from sending Ms Sade Adesuyi, a senior officer in the Embassy to represent him at the official Conference, the embassy also hosted me to a lunch and dinner. And as the embassy driver, Saheed, a 32 year old veteran with the embassy came to pick me from my hotel to the Nigerian Embassy situated at 70, Avenue Omar bin El Khattab Agdal – Rabat, I discovered a clean city with well tarred roads and beautiful gardens. From the car radio came a live transmission of an African Cup of Nation Football match from Dakar between Morocco and Senegal.

Ambassador Garba informed me that there were about 3000 registered Nigerians in the country, most of whom were students on scholarship given by the Moroccan government. Tourism is the main Moroccan economy with additional revenue from the mining of phosphate. Although the country has a very high standard of living compared to Nigeria (The Naira to Moroccan currency exchanges at a ratio of 9:1), jobs are difficult to get in the country both for the natives and foreigners. In addition to this, the language barrier (French and Arabic are the official languages in Morocco), plus the inclement weather, do not encourage expatriate work. It is on record that, though a predominantly Moslem country, Morocco is very tolerant of other religious faiths. In addition, Islam is practised with moderation in the country with many Moroccan women wearing moderate sized hijabs, while some others don’t even wear it. In addition, many Nigerian Imams are usually sent to the country to attend workshops on religious tolerance or as Ambassador Garba put it; ‘to re-radicalize some of the Imams’.

On my last day in Morocco, I decided to have a proper feel of Casablanca. Fortunately, the hospitable officials of the Morocco’s Ministry of Culture were able to arrange a whole day of sightseeing for three of us who were the last set of delegates to depart the country. And so it was that after a smooth ride from Rabat on the hired tourist bus, we arrived in Casablanca, Morocco’s commercial capital, a few minutes after noon.

Casablanca (white city), located in the central-western part of Morocco and bordering the Atlantic Ocean, is the largest city in Morocco. It is also the largest city in the Maghreb region, as well as one of the largest and most important cities in Africa, both economically and demographically. The city is Morocco’s chief port and one of the largest financial centres on the continent. According to the 2014 population estimate, the city has a population of about 3.35 million in the urban area, and over 6.8 million in the Casablanca-Settat region.

An endless city with its martyr memorials, monuments, legends, and countless manifestations of braveries, I discovered that everything I have heard about Casablanca was true, except that it was even more beautiful than I had imagined. As Morocco’s principal centre for recreation, Casablanca has a number of beaches, parks, and attractive promenades along the sea front. Together with my friends, I visited the Boulevard Hansalis, which is lined with shops for tourists for a quick purchase of leather works and mementoes. Inland from the docks and the harbour is the old city, or medina, a maze of narrow streets and whitewashed brick or stone houses. In a semicircle outside the walls of the medina were palm tree-lined avenues radiating from Muḥammad V Square that reach to the coast on either side of the harbour. Also near the coast was the Ḥasan II mosque, which was built partly on reclaimed land and is one of the largest and most ornate mosques in the world. On the day of my visit, the mosque was full of tourists who had come from far and wide to inspect its beautiful ornate interiors.

I stopped for a lunch in a restaurant near the beautiful tree-lined beach, while all around me, gaily dressed Moroccans went about their businesses, oblivious of the chilly weather that made me recoil inside my thick sweater.

After another round of sightseeing, it was time to move to the airport for my return to Nigeria. Unfortunately, it was after work rush hour, so we ran into a heavy traffic jam on our way to the airport. In an attempt to reach the airport on time, the driver of our tourist bus, Eminiveri Tours, was forced to take a series of back streets which eventually brought us to our destination on time. It was therefore a farewell to Morocco, especially to Casablanca, a city of honour and diligence, and the inspiration of numerous literature, songs and movies; most of all, a city hard to bid farewell to.

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