In contrast to the towns and villages of the rest of Morocco,
Casablanca is a big city. It's more than that actually. It's population
of around 3.8 million people makes it a big city for any
country. It would take you hours and hours to walk from
one side of Casablanca to the other - a few more probably if you
factored in seat of the pants navigating its winding
streets (street signs are optional of course, as seems to be the local
Moroccan tradition), all of which are veritable museums for the most
stunning varied display of muddy potholes of all shapes and sizes
It's modern and it's ancient. A quick look around shows people dressed
in upscale Halston and Gucci alongside women
wearing burkas and dresses which cover every part of their
bodies, and men wearing full length caped berber gowns
despite the heat. Street vendors cook on the sidewalks near salons
de thé selling sweet Moroccan mint tea in teapots
which look as if genies would emerge from them if you
rubbed them just the right way. Nearby a man sells dubious quality
water from a wheelbarrow loaded with filthy bottles. But by and large,
the streets aren't crowded. There's a lot to see - to be sure. There's
just not a lot of people around looking. This city has close to four
million people - plus tourists. Where are they?
Casablanca is home to the fifth largest mosque in the world, the
intricately ornate behemoth Hassan II which accommodates a
staggering one hundred and five thousand worshipers at
once. It's minaret is the world's tallest at six hundred and eighty
nine feet. Walking around Hassan II,
my daughter Alexandra
and I are truly in awe. It's not that we haven't seen huge houses of
worship before. We're both seasoned travelers. We've visited a
veritable plethora of churches and cathedrals and synagogues and
in our time. But for sheer size, Hassan II is breathtaking. Churches,
cathedrals, and synagogues have pews and chairs. Hassan II, like all
mosques, simply has open uninterrupted carpeted space, giving the
impression of a
interior, an interior which is already truly
To be sure, there are other visitors to Hassan II on this day
and I visit. But given the huge campus it comprises, there are actually
very few people here. Where is everyone?
Rick's Café, another Casablanca icon, is also high on our
"must see" list. Modeled after the quintessential gin
joint from the movie Casablanca in which its
owner Rick Blaine aka Humphrey Bogart utters the most misquoted line in
movie history ("Play it, Sam" not "Play it again, Sam") to piano man
Sam aka Dooley Wilson requesting As Time Goes By,
and I enjoy Rick's Café all to ourselves, having braved the
a sudden rainstorm
to get here. There's just the two of us plus the charming Arab
Maître D' who speaks flawless English in a heavy
accent, and the fez festooned barman who offers us local
olives and nuts with our drinks
chooses the indigenous Casablanca labeled beer - I, less
adventurously, settle for a bottle of ice cold Heineken)
at the empty bar. And while it's certainly a daunting and rare treat
for us not to have to share this mythical place with anyone else, again
I find myself wondering "Where is everyone?".
We're at a sea wall near the harbor - Casablanca is, of course, a port
on the Atlantic ocean. It's sunset - a dazzling, massive, bronzed and
golden sunset. And there's a crowd - a very big crowd. And
what a crowd it is. So this is where everyone
But why? Why are they all here?
There's men. There's women. There's children. There's policemen.
There's soldiers in military fatigues. There's the women in burkas.
There's the men in berber gowns and traditional Arab head dress.
There's locals and there's tourists side by side. There's people of all
races, of all creeds, from all countries, and - I imagine - of all
religions: Muslims, Christians, Jews. They're speaking all languages:
classic Arabic, Moroccan French, English, Japanese, Chinese, German,
... you name it - I hear it spoken here. Parked near the wall are
buses, taxis, cars, wheelbarrows, bicycles, indeed transport of
every imaginable description. They line the street. No, they
block the street. It's an impassable phalanx of vehicles
and people hundreds of yards long, hundreds of feet deep. It looks as
if the drivers simply drove their vehicles here, then just stopped
in the middle of the street, got out, and left their vehicles
There's dogs walking around in the crowd. There's chickens and
livestock in cages on some of the stationary trucks.
Everyone and his brother is here. And everyone seems to be
looking out to sea. But no ships are coming in. And no one's looking in
the direction of the sunset. So why are they here? What are they
looking at? We haven't seen a crowd like this anywhere else in
Casablanca - indeed, there's no one anywhere else in
Casablanca (of course, that's an exaggeration - but it makes my point).
So what brings these people to this place?
And then suddenly I see it. I see what they see. I see why they're all
here, and I get it. And when I do, I break out in joyous laughter. Wide
eyed and open mouthed, all I can say - softly and slowly, over and over
again - is "WOW! Oh ... my ...
Oh ... my ...
This ... is ... so ... AWESOME!"
Beyond the sea wall, some nice waves are breaking toward the beach.
They're about six feet high but not moving very fast. They form peaks
on the sand bars, then break - left and right. Typical beach
break. Not spectacular surf. Just nice, warm, easy, playful waves.
And in the waves I see about five Moroccan children
They're not standing up on surfboards. They're on their tummies on what
I think are boogie-boards. But as I look closer, I realize the
cost of a state of the art Morey Boogie probably exceeds
these kids' families' annual income, and what they're using as
boogie-boards (and very deftly, I might add) are offcuts of wood
shaped like the real thing ie like a Morey Boogie. And
these kids are tearing up the waves on their scraps of
wood boogie-boards. They take off on feathering peaks. They turn. They
angle toward the unbroken shoulder of the wave. They hang
back just enough to get tubed, and then they
kick out and paddle back into the line up and wait for the
The crowd is loving it! The biggest crowd of onlookers
I've seen in Casablanca, is oooh-ing and
aaah-ing with each ride, with each kid getting tubed, with
each kid occasionally getting wiped out. The woman wearing
burkas are loving it. The men in berber gowns are loving it. The Arabs
are loving it. The tourists are loving it. The police are loving it.
The soldiers are loving it. With each ride, everyone waves their arms,
animatedly talking about it with whoever's standing next to them. I can
hear ooohs and aaahs in classic Arabic, in
Moroccan French, in Spanish, in German, in English, in Chinese, in
Japanese, in more languages that I can distinguish. Again I realize all
the ooohs and aaahs come from a cross section
of just about every religion on the face of
So this is it! This is what all these people have come to
see. This is what a cross section of all humanity have
come to see. All cultures. All creeds. All languages. All classes.
This crowd isn't looking around the city of Casablanca. This crowd
isn't taking in the Hassan II, the fifth largest mosque in all the
world. This crowd isn't patronizing Rick's Café, arguably
Casablanca's best known icon. This enormous mixed crowd has
spontaneously assembled here for one reason and one reason only: to
watch the boogie-boarders of Casablanca play and have fun in the surf
with their home made boogie-boards - that is to say, with their offcuts
of scrap wood shaped into beta versions of the iconic
Morey Boogie. This is the central attraction for this enormous
cross section of humanity. They're all here, they're all
drawn here to watch a bunch of kids playing and having fun
in the surf ie living a life they love. And through them, every
person in this vast and varied crowd is vicariously also
living a life they love.
The boogie-boarders of Casablanca have transcended it all, and with
their transcendence, they bring along everyone else to
transcend it all with them. They've captured the hearts and the
imaginations of an enormous cross section of the population of
But perhaps on second thought, this really isn't surprising after all.
Perhaps what it comes down to is this: what we all want is
the freedom to play and to have fun. We're divided by country. We're
divided by race. We're divided by class. We're divided by creed. We're
divided by wealth (or lack of it). We're divided by
language. We're divided by religion. But what we all have in common,
what brings us together is we want the freedom to play and
have fun. How simple is this? How profound is this?
I look over at
She doesn't see me looking at her. She, too, is totally engrossed in
the boogie-boarders of Casablanca. Her hair is afire, backlit with the
of the setting sun. She's lit up - literally - just like
everyone else in this huge and fabulously varied crowd.
In terms of calling people from all walks of Life to come together in a
way which makes available to them a life they love, neither the might
of the G-7 nor the collective persuasive powers of the
United Nations has ever succeeded in even getting close to
accomplishing what a couple of rag tag kids, the
boogie-boarders of Casablanca, are accomplishing simply by playing in
the surf, having fun with offcut scraps of wood.