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Mystique and bustle, modernity and ritual in 'Casa'

Email|Print| Text size + By Mara Vorhees
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2005

CASABLANCA, Morocco -- Passengers landing at Mohammed V International Airport might remember Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart embracing on the tarmac in a cloud of mist. Westerners who visit Casablanca for romantic reasons associated with the classic film, however, are likely to be sorely disappointed by this brash, modern metropolis. First impressions of ''Casa," as it is called, are often of unkempt buildings, traffic jams, and noise pollution rather than dark intrigue, moonlit nights, and starry eyes.

The juxtaposition of Casa's romantic image and its jarring reality is just one of many contrasts that define Morocco's largest city and economic center. From religious monuments to beach cafes, from traditional culture to modern nightlife, Casablanca is a jumble of curiosities and contradictions that somehow fit together into one surprising package -- which is precisely what makes this legendary place so intriguing.

The top attraction is the Hassan II Mosque, opened in 1993 to commemorate the former king's 60th birthday. A hard-line autocrat who ruled for more than 40 years, Hassan II was nonetheless beloved by his people, who contributed much of the $600 million that built the monument.

Using state-of-the-art architectural design, its construction employed more than 6,000 Moroccan artisans. Its soaring minaret calls the faithful to daily prayer -- and sprays laser beams across the night sky toward Mecca. Its spectacular setting overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is the site of a former city slum, whose residents were displaced without compensation.

Symbolism aside, the mosque is remarkable. Designed by the French architect Michel Pinseau, it can hold 25,000 worshipers: 20,000 men in the vast prayer hall and 5,000 women in the balconies above. It is said to be the world's third-largest religious structure, large enough to hold St. Peter's Cathedral with room to spare. The 210-meter minaret is the highest in the world.

If the exterior is French-inspired, the interior is all Moroccan: cedar from the Middle Atlas Mountains for the ceilings, marble from Agadir for the floors, and granite from Tafraoute for the columns. The best master craftsmen in the country produced spectacular woodcarving, tile work, and stucco molding. The mosque's high-tech features include a heated floor and a retractable roof.

The Hassan II Mosque is also the only mosque in Morocco open to non-Muslims. One-hour tours in the language of your choice include the prayer hall, ablution rooms, and hammam (bathhouse).

In the suburb of Oasis, the Museum of Moroccan Judaism of Casablanca sheds light on a less prominent religious tradition. Judaism came to Morocco in the 15th century, when thousands of refugees fled Andalusian Spain after the Christian Reconquista. Exiles settled in Morocco's larger cities, many of which still have a mellah, or Jewish quarter.

Muslim-Jewish relations in Morocco traditionally have been cordial. Jews enjoyed the favor of the sultan and repaid him with their loyalty in times of conflict. During World War II, when Morocco was a French protectorate (it gained independence in 1956), it shielded 300,000 Jews and helped those escaping persecution in Europe get to the United States.

After Israel declared its independence in 1948, the number of Jewish residents plummeted. In 1967, Moroccans showed solidarity with fellow Arabs during the Six Day War, causing heightened tensions, and many Jews emigrated to Israel or France. By the end of the 20th century, the Jewish population in Morocco had declined from 300,000 to 3,500 residents.

Muslim-Jewish relations suffered another blow on May 16, 2003, when Casablanca was rocked by explosions carried out by suicide bombers. The attack was planned as five simultaneous bombings, targeting locales frequented by Jews and Europeans. More than 40 people were killed, including 12 attackers.

Investigators blamed Salafia Jihadia, a group with suspected international ties. The bombers were all young Moroccan men, many from the outskirts of Casablanca. An overwhelming majority of Moroccan Muslims condemned the violence.

The inauguration of the Jewish Museum, just one year earlier in 2002, was symbolic of the country's commitment to remain one of the world's most tolerant Islamic societies. It is the only Jewish museum in the Muslim world.

The perfect antidote for a traveler exhausted by religious history and architecture is the beachside Boulevard de la Corniche, about 3 miles southwest of the center. Lined with four-star hotels, upscale restaurants, coffee shops, and nightclubs, it feels closer to Mediterranean Europe than North Africa. Young professionals jog along the boardwalk; chic Casablancans come to see and be seen.

The best place to catch some rays is at one of the boulevard's beach clubs, such as Miami Plage. The private clubs charge an entrance fee, but it's worth it to find an empty strip of sand, along with amenities like swimming pools, beach umbrellas, and tiki bars.

After a day at the beach, sun worshipers cool off at the Palais des Glaces, a parlor that has been scooping up ice cream for 125 years.

And what would a trendy oceanfront neighborhood be without top-notch seafood restaurants with spectacular sea views? Several options are clustered around the El-Hank Lighthouse at the east end of the boulevard.

At La Mer, service is refined and French; patrons eat from fine china and on white linen while ocean waves crash upon the rocks below. Nearby, the trendy, popular La Petite Roche bar is strewn with pillows and lighted by candles, creating a laid-back, exotic atmosphere enjoyed by a mostly Moroccan crowd. The view is across the bay to the Hassan II Mosque.

Even film buffs (who know that not a scene of the movie was filmed here) and diehard romantics may discover something to delight in. New last spring, Rick's Caf is an elegant restaurant and piano bar opposite the port. American owner Kathy Kriger watched ''Casablanca" hundreds of times to re-create the film's legendary cafe. Long overdue, it is sure to be a hit -- as time goes by.

Mara Vorhees is a freelance writer living in Somerville. She is co-author of the forthcoming Lonely Planet guide to Morocco.

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