On the Way to Rick’s Café
Ordinarily, if I’m taking a long bus ride, much of the time I’ll either be reading something in print (think book or newspaper), fidgeting with my iPhone, or taking a well-deserved snooze. However, on this journey from Marrakech to Casablanca, I was wide awake looking out the window, partly because I suspect I won’t be seeing this scenery again for quite a while – if ever, and partly because much of the time I was counting the minutes until the next rest stop. (Let me off the bus; I gotta pee!)
After several hours of driving through the flat countryside where the sheep and goats graze and the farmers grow things, we did arrive in Casablanca – which is to Morocco the way New York City is to the rest of the U.S.A. In this cosmopolitan center, there are many more women who dress like their western counterparts. There is also more crime and unemployment. It’s the only place in Morocco where you’ll see people (not a lot) begging on the street, although not in the areas we were passing through. Getting to our first destination took us through some of the fancier neighborhoods. In one of them, nobody would be caught dead speaking Arabic; you’d better brush up on your parlez-vous if you need to ask for directions in that part of town.
(Some thoughts about language: Here in The Land, the official language is Hebrew, with a somewhat lower status for Arabic and English. However, if you were to go to any mall, you’d notice that all the store signs are in English, as would be anything written on any jacket or shirt –whether it be the FOX logo, worn on any day by 50,000 Israelis, or the eight year old girl with ‘hot to trot’ emblazoned on her t-shirt – even though neither she nor her parents have any idea what that means.
In Morocco, the official languages are Classical Arabic, Moroccan Arabic, and Berber – actually a distinctive language with its own alphabet. But just as everything in Israel is written in English, all the signs in Morocco are also in French – not surprising since the French ruled the country for some half a century. Having studied French and Spanish, I can pretty much make out anything that’s written, although having a dictionary app on my iPhone would have made it a tad easier. At least we didn’t have to deal with following instructions in Arabic; I might have wound up inadvertently buying a camel.)
I had mentioned traveling to ‘our first destination.’ So what would be our first destination? The Jewish Museum. The one and only Jewish museum anywhere in the Arab world, even though Morocco was not the only country in the region that used to have a significant Jewish population. It was opened to the public a few years ago, with King Muhammed VI present on that glorious occasion. It’s not a big place as museums go, but you can spend the better part of an hour going through it. There are the usual ritual objects, the kind you’d see at any Jewish museum. There is a room whose walls are covered with photographs of Jewish life in Morocco in by-gone days. What interested me the most was the temporary exhibit of photographs in the first room. These were part of a series of sepia-toned images taken throughout the region and donated to the museum. The ones on display in the museum are interiors of synagogues and alleyways in Jewish quarters. It was as if the people were there, even though they weren’t any more. All the information about the photographer and his work was available. I could have taken my iPhone and scanned the information. Lots of people do that kind of thing. But I said to myself, why bother? When I get back, I’ll go the museum’s website. I’m sure it’s all there. WHAT WEBSITE??? The museum doesn’t have a website. So all the information I needed I don’t have.
Many of you don’t know what I’m describing. We’re talking about someone lugging around a huge camera and a tripod, in order to make images on a glass plate or film that is 4×5” or even 8X10”. The photographer spends hours looking for the best vantage point and the right lighting conditions and then makes an exposure that takes from several seconds to several minutes, later making a print the same size as the negative. Sepia is a very old printing process that emphasized subtle gradations of light and dark. There are still die-hearts working with these tools today.
The point is that this a contemplative process, taking a lot of time, done in isolation. The images on display were not made with a herd of people running around while the photographer was trying to work. And thus my personal dilemma. On the one hand, except for being with this kind of a group, I would not have had access to a lot of the places we visited. On the other hand, there were usually people blocking my view, standing where I needed to be, or generally being in the way for much of what I wanted to photograph. So it’s a trade-off. Sometimes the only solution was to incorporate the people around me into the picture – but then I can work a lot faster than the guys with the large format cameras.
Because Cindy, our Israeli guide, is considered such an important person in these parts, the museum curator took time from her busy schedule to talk to us about the museum. And then, lo and behold, Reeva, one of our group was asked to speak. She is an academician of some distinction (who knew?) and is quite knowledgeable about Morocco as it functioned under the Vichy government. Whereas Jews were deported from most European countries during the Holocaust, the Moroccan sultan felt duty-bound to protect his Jewish subjects; so they remained. In fact, their numbers swelled, as refugees from all over the region began arriving, all hoping to somehow wangle the necessary documents to get-the-hell-out-of-there. Living conditions were horrific, but it was better than what the Nazis were offering elsewhere.
Casablanca, in case you aren’t aware, is a port city, which explains why it was a likely destination for refugees. In fact, it was that same port area that we were heading to next. Once again, we found a restaurant, right by the Mediterranean, that allowed us to eat our own sandwiches, provided that we bought a beverage of some sort. Very obliging folks, these Moroccans.
And then we were off to the synagogue. What would a day in Morocco be like if we didn’t visit a synagogue somewhere? This one, at least, is not a relic of the past or barely hanging on, one minyan at a time. There are over 1,000 Jews remaining in Casablanca, so there is still a use for a decent sized beit knesset. For our group, we wouldn’t have to daven mincha in some weird setting.
We were told that there is a kosher bakery around the corner from the shul. That sounded promising: Moroccan pastries, maybe some baklava? Who knows what. So as soon as we were through praying, I hightailed it around the corner, my mouth already watering in anticipation. And what did I find there? All they made were dry-as-dust-cookies, the kind you would eat if you were alone on a desert island with a limited supply of food. Oh well…..
Time to check in at the Sheraton hotel, located in the heart of Casablanca, with a really swell lobby and adequate rooms. Now I ask you, what would a trip like this be without at least one luggage mis-adventure? Cindy and Sheila did everything in their power to minimize any problems with our stuff. They insisted that we personally pay attention that our suitcases got on and off our bus whenever we arrived or left wherever we were staying. But is there anything more potent than the human imagination when it comes to thwarting the best laid plans? There we were in the hotel lobby. We had one of our suitcases, but where was the other one? In its place was a suitcase the same size, the same color, the same manufacturer, with a similar but not identical blue ribbon on the handle. Obviously, someone, not paying strict attention to detail, had walked off with our luggage. With Cindy’s help, we figured who the miscreants were and where their room was. Knock, knock. ‘Ummm, we think you have our suitcase.’ What was the difference (besides the content)? Theirs was labeled ‘Swiss Pro’ and ours was ‘Swiss Traveler.’ Just remember, I suggested to our fellow travelers, you guys are pros; we’re just travelers. I reminded them of this distinction several times over the next day and a half, and we had no further difficulties. There are ways, and there are ways…..
We again had some free time before dinner, and, since our hotel was only a few blocks from the shuk, we decided to explore. It’s a small shuk as shuks go, but it has an amazing potpourri of stuff. You can buy fruits and vegetables, clothing, electronics, something to eat, even some souvenirs for Natania, all in a few block radius. Just beware of the ‘helpful’ guys who will offer to show you around. No good will come of that.
Sooner or later, it would be time for dinner. Back on the bus, this time to the Jewish Community Center. No, don’t think about an exercise room, a pool, or an auditorium. A community center for a community of 1000 or 1500 people has no such luxuries. But a meal – even an extravagant meal – that’s more like it. You would think that we had arrived at some sort of simcha, the trade-marks being much too much food and a bunch of musicians, who were determined to play their music much too loud, no matter what anybody else wanted. We kept asking the manager to tell them to turn it down, which he did, and then two minutes later, they turned the volume back up again. Most of you have been in this situation: you can barely hear yourself think, let alone have a conversation with the person sitting next to you. In my case, the person on my right was this same Reeva, who had spoken so well at the museum. Of all the people in our group, she was the one I most wanted to talk to. But to no avail.
Sometime in the middle of this cacophony, it was decided that we should daven maariv. We made our way to a small room on the side, away from the racket. When we were done, all the other guys returned to their seats. Not me! I had eaten all that I was going to eat until the next morning, and it was quiet where I was. So I stayed put. That’s the hallmark of a fully qualified curmudgeon, which I am. If I played my cards right, I might get in a few zzzzzzz’s before it was time to leave. At some point, our entire group arrived and interrupted my solitude. Something to do with a ‘closing ceremony’ type event. What did people like; what didn’t they like? Never mind that; by 10:30 PM, my thoughts were directed exclusively to the pillow that awaited me back at the hotel. You know how grumpy curmudgeons get when they are sleep-deprived.
The next morning, all our luggage – including those of the ‘Swiss Travelers’ and the ‘Swiss Pros’ – were safely loaded onto the bus. We were off to our last scheduled stop, King Hassan’s mosque. Wait a minute! Isn’t that where we came in, how many articles ago?
All right, off to the airport. Except……. I had once jokingly asked Cindy if we would be stopping at Rick’s Café, knowing full well that Bogie and Ingrid Bergman, et. al., had never left the Warner Brothers’ lot in Hollywood to make the film. Years later, someone had the not-so-original idea of opening a ‘Rick’s Café in Casablanca, and sure enough, we passed by it on the way to the airport, its façade almost obscured by a throng of Japanese tourists taking pictures of each other. Wouldn’t you know.
(There is one more article to go, in which I share some closing remarks and some of my best photographs. Please be patient.)